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My nonprofit spam manifesto

March 10, 2011

No Nonprofit Spam

My standards for bulk email sent by nonprofit organizations are fairly simple:

In other words, if I did not actively request that you send me regular e-bulletins or e-newsletters or urgent action alerts, then it’s spam.

However, it’s not spam if:

  • You’re sending me a one-time-only message that is relevant to something that I posted publicly.
  • You’re emailing me to invite me to join your subscription list.
  • I went to your web site and subscribed to your e-bulletin.
  • We had a conversation about your organization, and I said, “Do you have an e-bulletin? I’d like to subscribe.”
  • I’m a dues-paying member of your organization, and voluntarily gave you  my contact information.
  • You’re my client.

That’s about it.  No other exceptions that I’d care to stipulate.

I was going to make one more exception: “we are so close  that you can predict with 100% accuracy what is going to interest and what is going to annoy me.”  The problem with that one is that people I’m really close to tend to be extremely respectful in the way they treat others, and therefore they are slow to make assumptions that it’s ok to inflict unsolicited email subscriptions on their friends. Unfortunately, the world is full of others who are not very respectful and are also quick to make assumptions that any contact at all implies a close relationship and tacit permission to give me a lifetime subscription to their bulk email.  Alas.

I would encourage every nonprofit that sends out an e-bulletin to think about it as (at least in part) a relationship-building tool.  Your goal should not just be to inform us, to ask us for money, or to prod us to action.  It should also be to help us feel connected and emotionally invested in your organization.  Perhaps you should be asking yourself whether you want us to perceive you as intrusive and presumptuous, or as friendly and respectful to stakeholders? If you prefer to be seen as friendly and respectful, then please stop sending us unsolicited bulk email.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2011 10:56 am

    I couldn’t agree more. Whether completely unsolicited or a “misunderstanding” of “interest,” not requesting that someone opt-in is an invitation to having your emails clicked as spam.

    I still recall with anger the single donation that I gave to a leading LGBT group. I was myself working in development, so I thought my note that this was a specific donation and my request that I not be added to the gerenal mailing list would be the only flags I needed to provide for my unknown peer there. Not only did I immediately begin receiving e- and print notices, my repeated requests to be removed from their list were unsuccessful (“unsubscribe” links were not being used as much at the time). I would like to think that the departments were each assuming the other was doing the data cleanup work, rather than that my requests were deliberately ignored “for the numbers.” However…

    The group does good work, but that left such a bad taste in my mouth that it was the last time I made a donation. Worse, I am hesitant to sign any petition that doesn’t include opt-in/opt-out information because of the deluge that comes thereafter.

    Surely we can create better standards for our own organizations before government has to formally regulate nonprofit mailings too?

  2. March 22, 2011 12:28 am

    Sorry, but I have to disagree. In fact what you suggest is illegal in canada, and will become even more illegal when our new law, Canada’s Anti-spam law (CASL) comes into effect later this year.

    “You’re emailing me to invite me to join your subscription list.”

    Nope. You don’t get to send invites. there are probably tens of millions of email lists out there. Would you like each of them to have a free pass to invite you to join? Didn’t think so!


    Neil Schwartzman
    Chief Practices Specialist
    Montreal, CANADA

    • March 22, 2011 12:53 am

      I should probably point out that this is my own nonprofit spam manifesto. I am stipulating what I consider to be acceptable or unacceptable, ethical or unethical.

      I am not a lawyer, and do not claim to be able to advise others about what the law implies in any jurisdiction. I can state personal preferences and explain where I think the ethical boundaries lie, and that’s about it.

      As for inviting me to join email lists, I have no objection at all if the administrators of every list on the planet send me invitations. As long as they maintain “confirmed opt-in” policies, I’m happy to delete the thousands of unwanted invitations that pour in. However, I do understand that your mileage may vary.

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