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Nonprofit & Activism Spam: Still Not Kosher

March 14, 2011

Not that long ago, I worked for a religious organization. The director routinely asked that lists of emails from conferences or emails with lots of people cc’ed should be added to the general mailing list. Of course I would always ask: do you know that these people want to be on your list?

Ha. Of course not. And he didn’t care. Really! He super didn’t care.

As time went on, I realized that he was adding people who had repeatedly unsubscribed, as well as emails that linked to listservs he had subscribed to with his general email address. This meant that folks who had repeatedly unsubscribed would sometimes get our mass email 3-4 times, because that person was on a few shared listservs. If that person wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand that the email wasn’t delivered through a list, they would try – in vain – to unsubscribe again using the link, and fail, because they were no longer subscribed. And they would call me and use bad language.

It’s been a few years now, but when I mention this group’s name, people still ask me how the fuck can they unsubscribe from that list.

His argument was that in a world dominated by corporate media and messaging, righteous words of the sort he provided had to fight to be heard by enough people. Adding email addresses without their consent was akin to standing on the lawn of an evil corporation with a banner: civil disobedience. Explaining to him that this was wrong on oh so many levels didn’t help. He knew better than the internets, better than angry, unwilling subscribers, better than irate ESP’s chiding him for all the spam complaints. He knew that what he had to say was IMPORTANT.

But you know what? He’s not alone. That kind of arrogant, self-centered, and counter productive approach is quite common among folks who in almost any other context would be howling at the lack of privacy and respect. And we probably can’t persuade them on ethical, legal or utilitarian grounds. It’s 2011, people. They know that ‘other’ people think it’s shameful. And they don’t care.

So here’s what I do – especially with super progressive, well-meaning, often older folks trying to run some little nonprofit or campaign: I figure out what service they are using to send emails (usually constant contact, icontact, and the like) and file a formal complaint at the ‘abuse@’ address. If I don’t get a reassuring email letting me know that this is being looked into, I start emailing other addresses from the firm. In one case, I had to reach staff at a regional ISP on the phone, and insinuated that their company probably didn’t have enough technical staff or chops to fuck with me, so they better act polite even if they didn’t mean it. (That actually worked.)

What I never do is politely ask to be removed from their list, which is what I used to do a few years ago. At this point, the problem is no longer my ability to manage unwanted emails. It’s the toll that unwanted messages take on the entire progressive and nonprofit movement. To the extent that spam is associated with the movements and causes that I hold dear, it is causing damage to an otherwise upstanding sector. Spam is noise, and too much noise kills appropriate messaging. My hobby is to try and kill spam. In support of the good guys.

You might think this is extreme. Last month I got an email that boasted of how the author had researched 1000 other progressives by scraping emails from various sites and aggregating them to his opt-out list. He was bragging! Last week I was solicited for donations by a candidate in Philadelphia. He added me to his list. I have never lived near his district. I left Philly years ago. WTF? Dude, that’s an email to NGP/VAN right there telling them YOU SUCK.

From time to time, I get an email back promising that I will be unsubscribed from the offending list. My response is: I didn’t complain for ME, I complained for YOU! Obviously I could have hit the unsubscribe link. Then you’d have no idea that someone is violating your ToS, and probably thinking that it’s not actually a problem, because they only scraped ‘appropriate’ emails and ripped off lists from groups they are actually connected to. Not like real spammers, the kind who sell Viagra….

It’s not like I’m a fanatic or anything. I only go ballistic on someone every 2-3 weeks, maybe 20 times a year. And it only takes a few minutes. But if just ONE MORE PERSON joins me, and ONE MORE PERSON joins the two of us, together we can ban those SOB’s from any ESP that actually delivers email on time, get their domains blacklisted, and know that whatever dreams of improving the world they had, those dreams are dead or dying for having committed the crime of spam.


4 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2011 1:33 am

    To be honest, I think you have weakened your argument a bit with your unprofessional language. I know this is a blog, but since it was advertised on one of the more influential e-mail lists in Boston, it is jarring to see multiple f-bombs and frankly looks a bit juvenile!

  2. March 15, 2011 1:44 am

    They never told me I’d be writing for a respectable site like this one.

  3. March 15, 2011 3:40 am

    I sort agree with KT here, but I’m not prepared to police C’s language. I’d rather devote my efforts to re-educating nonprofits about spam, or to some other achievable outcome, than engage in a futile attempt to curb C’s exuberance.


  4. Spam Cop permalink
    March 15, 2011 6:04 am

    I totally agree with C. I am actually more likely — FAR more likely — to report as spam unsolicited email from a nonprofit. I report them to, which will notify both the ESP sending out their emails and the host of their website. If they’re also using a real ESP, I take the additional step of filing an abuse complaint and pointing out the ways that it violates their ToS. Having worked with several nonprofits using ESPs, I know that in most cases the ESP is quite direct with an organization when they receive this kind of complaint.

    It would be an interesting campaign to go to ESPs and say: We love nonprofits, and we want you to make the penalties for them spamming more public and more punitive.

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