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First, Do No Harm

March 14, 2011

Nonprofits need to take a page from the medical practice’s book: first, do no harm.

If years of watching Grey’s Anatomy have taught me anything, it’s that it’s really hard to know what helping is sometimes. So if all else fails, try to make sure you aren’t hurting anything.

That’s how I think about email. We can all agree that spam makes people unhappy, right? And an unhappy person is unlikely to support an offending nonprofit with time, talent or treasure. If the person is unhappy enough, he may share his thoughts publicly and – knowingly or not – contribute to others to withholding or withdrawing support.

If that’s not harm, I don’t know what is!

So why do nonprofits spam people?

No nonprofit professional sits down at her desk in the morning and says, “I’d like to spam some people today!”

Part of the problem is in agreeing what constitutes spam.

There are different definitions of spam, from the (generally) industry-accepted (I like Spamhaus’ UBE definition), to an individual’s own personal definition, which may range from a reasonable level of tolerance to downright outrage at being sent anything unexpected. I won’t advocate for one definition over another here because ultimately, whether or not an email meets one definition or another doesn’t matter.

If someone thinks you’ve spammed him, the outcome is the same as if you had.

It’s not enough to pick a definition of spam that you like, then operate within (or stretch!) that definition. Nonprofits get the most support not when we communicate the greatest quantity of messages, but when we communicate the best quality messages. This means sending the right messages. At the right times. To the right people. In the right ways.

The Right People, The Right Ways

Given any email communication and group of potential recipients, this is my personal list of right-people-right-way questions:

  • Do we know that these people want this type of email?
  • Do we know that it’s okay to email these people this often?
  • Do we know that our email provides something of value to these people? Will they feel good about receiving this email?
  • Will these people know why they are receiving this email?
  • Do we know that these people want email from us? Do we have EXPLICIT PERMISSION to email each person with this type of email, this often?

If you can’t answer yes to these questions – particularly the last one – for any given email communication, then you’re probably running a significant risk that your email will be regarded as spam. Your potential for doing harm increases, and for doing good (getting the desired result, be that a donation or a volunteer, etc.) decreases.

I think there’s a strong temptation to think that failing to send various or sundry email represents a missed opportunity. This kind of fear-based thinking doesn’t ultimately serve a nonprofit in its mission. When you send spam, your only missed opportunity is to communicate with the small percent of people who welcome unsolicited email from you. In the meantime, you’ve likely alienated a much larger percent of your recipeints who may block future emails, report you for spamming, and generally spread bad mojo via word of mouth. In short: you stand to lose more than you may gain. Primum non nocere.

Instead, I would encourage nonprofits to feel good about doing the hard work and taking the time to capitalize on a much greater opportunity – to be strategic and to create a plan to reach out to constituents in a meaningful and engaging way! It’s difficult to tick people off by sending them quality content that they value and have asked you to send. 🙂

What’s your experience with nonprofit spam?

I write both from personal experience receiving nonprofit spam and as a professional in the #nptech community. Do you have personal experiences to share? Have you been sending spam (or do people tell you you are)? What have your outcomes been?

You’ve bothered to read my thoughts on the issue, and for that, I thank you. Why not go one step further & share yours in the comments?

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Huey permalink
    March 14, 2011 11:49 pm

    In the antispam industry right now, there are two generally-accepted definitions of ‘spam’: the first, which you already mentioned, is the academic definition: email that is both unsolicited, meaning that the recipient didn’t explicitly ask to receive it, and bulk, meaning that a substantively identical message was sent to many people. The second definition, perhaps more powerful these days, is “mail that people don’t want”.

    The reason for the power shift from the academic definition to the populist one is this: unsolicited bulk email is difficult to detect heuristically, because at the level of a single user, you can’t tell if it’s ‘bulk’ or not, and at the level of an ISP, you can’t tell if each individual user has solicited it or not. There’s a couple ways around that problem, but the easiest way for mailbox providers to give their users some kind of “this is spam” button they can click on, and then block mail from anybody that a significant fraction of their users has told them was spam.

    This strategy turns out to be amazingly effective, and so ‘mail that people have said is spam’ has become effectively a better definition of ‘spam’ than actual spam, unsolicited bulk email. But the most important implication of this shift is that it is no longer sufficient to have permission, and send only email that people have explicitly asked to receive. Now, if you don’t want to be seen as sending spam, you have to send mail that people actually WANT, to such an extent that they will not click ‘this is spam’ on it.

    This isn’t really new news — an email marketing professional first explained the concept of ‘relevance’ to me some ten years ago — but it has raised the bar significantly as far as the minimum that was required. Gone are the days when you can just send email to everybody on your list; now you also have to send email that they won’t hate, and click the ‘spam!’ button on.

    • Erin McMahon permalink
      March 15, 2011 12:02 am

      Thanks, Huey, for adding to the discussion of spam definitions. I 100% agree!

      And as far as not hating nonprofit email, that’s exactly why I suggest the question about value to recipients. Now how you know you are providing value, that’s a topic for a whole ‘nother post… 🙂

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