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Is It Only Spam If The Other Guy Does It?

March 15, 2011

You work for a great org.  What you do is important and meaningful.  To you, it’s not just a job — it’s a mission.  And it deserves funding and support from the public.  I get that.  But if your next logical step in that progression is to assume that I want to be on your email list, you’ve stepped over a line.  It’s a line that does not invalidate your mission, or your devotion to it.  But it doesn’t serve your mission, or your goal of garnering my support for it.  Because I reserve my support for organizations that merit my attention, not ones that abuse it.

We live in a world where most of us wrestle with two common priority-setting challenges:

  1. Most of us are not Bill or Melinda Gates; we can only afford to financially support a handful of the organizations that we would like to support.
  2. Our inboxes are already overflowing.

I spend as little time as possible assessing unsolicited emails before I delete them or mark them as spam. It takes longer if the email is from a nonprofit, because I never assume that an NPO is deliberately spamming me, although it does, sadly, prove true on occasion.  It’s time that would otherwise be spent doing a lot of things, many of them in service of the causes that I work for. Accordingly, the message that a nonprofit sends when they subscribe me to their list (without my approval) is: I am willing to set your priorities for you.

That’s not an appeal — it’s an edict.

It’s not an engagement — it’s invasive.

If their goal is to make it on my short list of organizations that I support, then the way to do that is by being the organization that pops up when I’m looking to add to my list. Those orgs have websites with solid descriptions of their work; metrics and testimonials to back it up; and good ratings with the organizations that assess non-profits.  My friends and family advocate for them. They garner support by being good at what they do, as opposed to being good at getting in my face, or inbox, as the case might be.

I know that it seems like it might be less effective.  And I know that we all want to be effective, because the missions we work for are critical.  But I support organizations that address their missions with good strategies and tactics.  Spam is not a strategy, and it’s an abhorrent tactic. And the fact that what a nonprofit is spamming is important doesn’t change the nature of it.

59 Comments leave one →
  1. March 16, 2011 4:56 am

    You’re completely right. I don’t mind signing up for nonprofit emailing lists, but even when they send emails, it shouldn’t be a daily reminder to donate. But you’re right when it automatically signs you up. I just think whenever your email goes into ANYTHING it is signed up to an email list. Although, it doesn’t make it right, and that’s why I can just go to the bottom of the email and opt out…

    • March 16, 2011 2:06 pm

      You do realize some of the email spams that signs you up into a suspicious newsletter has an opt out link that leads to more spam.
      I’m not joking. Some spam emails use those links so that spammers could confirm that the email they are targetting – basically you – is still active. Thus, they send more spams. So possible way to deal with this is not opting out on suspicious newsletter and mailing lists in a flash, but if the emails are still coming from the same sender, feel free to try your luck.

      On topic – you’re right about this, but that’s the way of marketing: taking chances by sending emails they didn’t realize are spams. We couldn’t do nothing more about it same as blatant spams containing helluva links, but you’re absolutely right about this.

      • March 16, 2011 10:27 pm

        So, you’re just screwed either way then? You can opt out, but then you’re signing into new spam? Ridiculous.

      • March 17, 2011 12:04 am

        Actually, there’ve been studies showing that this isn’t as true as many of us expected.

        When it’s a legitimate organization sending the mail, it’s almost unheard-of.

      • March 17, 2011 2:56 am

        Diagram– a way around that is to hover your mouse over the opt-out link, look at the web address that it goes to (shown on the bottom of your screen). Then just open a new tab or window, type in that address, and opt-out. That way you opt-out without clicking on the link. Although it’s true that clicking the link doesn’t usually sign you up for more spam, I say better safe than sorry!

      • March 17, 2011 5:33 am

        This is why I simply use the gmail “Mark as Spam” button. It automatically tries to unsubscribe you from the list (assuming the email follows certain standards so it isn’t caught in the spam filter) and, if that’s not possible, sends all further messages from that email (domain?) to the spam folder.

      • March 17, 2011 9:49 am

        Well I forgot to mention that this usually occurs on those unlegitimate mailing lists trying to trick you. I did read this somewhere on an IT magazine, so I thought why not share, and do the same as David does.

  2. March 16, 2011 5:10 am

    Great post — I couldn’t agree more. I would love to see the stats on how effective spam actually is for fundraising or signing up new members…

    • Peter Campbell permalink
      March 16, 2011 5:28 am

      Well, spam exists because you generally make more money than you spent to get it — in the same way that, if you throw 100,000 baskets, at least a few will land in the basket. But the metric isn’t “how much did the email campaign raise?” — it’s how much did you lose because of the potential donors that you alienated, and how deep is the support of the people that you did get. I don’t think there’s an easy way to get the stats, but I think it’s a no-brainer that a good nonprofit inspires more from it’s constituents than donations. For that, you have to build relationships, and relationships are built on courtesy and respect.

      • Erin McMahon permalink
        March 16, 2011 6:59 pm

        So well said, Peter. 🙂

      • March 17, 2011 5:49 am

        As a student of Psychology, I can’t help but ponder the logistics of such a study.

        Maybe a fake nonprofit organization (existing purely for this study) should spam one pool of participants for donations, then ask the same participants without spamming for donations. One would have to counterbalance the study on another pool of participants to increase validity. Finally have a control group where nothing is done to sway participants in either direction.

        Researchers would monitor each participant for overall donations and percent of donations given to what charity.

        There are several problems with starting an experiment like this, most of which are the ethical fouls most IRBs would call (including legality, taking money under false pretenses, etc.).

        I would look forward to seeing research done on this since it would potentially provide evidence for/against CANSPAM regulations in the U.S.

  3. March 16, 2011 6:53 am

    About the stats.. I did research on spam a few years ago and I recall a company telling me that their spam filter kept out a massive amount of messages a day (forgive me but I don’t know the exact numbers anymore). Even so, their employees still receives a few SPAM messages daily.

    You would be amazed how many (and I actually know a few) people read SPAM messages and “interact”. Leading to, ofcourse, more SPAM 🙂

  4. March 16, 2011 6:57 am

    I’m less bothered by spam emails (which I can delete) than with the constant evening phone calls from nonprofits begging me for money. I’ve written a script for such occasions: “Excuse me … while I am pleased to have donated to your organization in the past, I have $40,000 in student loan debts I can’t afford to pay back, and I already spend too much of my time dodging their calls. When I have money to donate, I will contact YOU.”

    • Opal Trelore permalink
      March 16, 2011 2:00 pm

      This is so true. My father has sworn never to donate to several nonprofits again because they will not stop calling him and asking for money. They ended up alienating someone who once thought highly enough about them that he made sizable donations.

  5. March 16, 2011 7:18 am

    “That’s not an appeal — it’s an edict.

    It’s not an engagement — it’s invasive.”

    Such powerful words and a spot-on message. Yet I wonder why it’s still a pervasive tactic? What possible benefits are organizations gaining from such invasive measures?

  6. March 16, 2011 8:13 am

    listen you made your plate, now your going to have to eat it. this is the way of the world now, and its the reason why we have spam filters, its that simple, you can still go through your spam box and sift through these emails when you feel you have the time. you are just watching this go on, and instead of taking proper action, i have to come across your negative aura while perusing through freshly pressed? shame on whoever deemed this to be front page worthy, it must be a really slow week. i dont care what you think about my comments, just straighten up and start taking care of your problems, instead of making a big deal about them.

    • March 16, 2011 11:43 am

      Reasonable and honorable people sometimes disagree, so your dissenting comments are welcome here.

      However, I don’t understand your argument. I gather that you wish to reprove and shame us, but I don’t understand the following points:

      – In what sense are we to blame? (Is that what you mean by “you made your plate?” Perhaps I’ve misconstrued.)

      – In what sense are we failing to take proper action? (I’m not sure how you are monitoring the individual actions of the bloggers on this site.)

      I will welcome any clarification you care to offer.

  7. March 16, 2011 8:53 am

    It is definitely invasive if it’s a sales pitch and you did not subscribe on your own initiative.

  8. March 16, 2011 10:07 am

    Absolutely right on! If you have decided to sign up for a mailing list- fair dues, but smapping for money is a definite turn off. Slightly off tpoin but just as off-putting are the charity muggers on the streets with their buckets and lists who want you to hand over your bank account details for direct debits…. if i wan to donate (and I do donate to animal charities) I will seek out the information myself. We all have google. We can all get involved if we wish to do so.

  9. March 16, 2011 10:19 am

    “And the fact that what a nonprofit is spamming is important doesn’t change the nature of it.” Totally agree! And personally, I think non-profits should leverage social media much more than they do: because so many people are emotionally invested in good causes and because conversations about our communities are likely to interest us, it should be easier to get shared and commented about, and ultimately to get donations and volunteer efforts.

  10. johnlmalone permalink
    March 16, 2011 11:08 am

    I love your last three sentences: concise and conclusive.

    what worries me is are you going to reply to peoples’ comments?

  11. March 16, 2011 11:40 am

    If every e-mail would cost something, even if only a fraction of a cent, spammers would think more than twice.
    As long as the (marginal) costs of sending e-mails are zero, there is no way to stop this behaviour.

  12. Peter Campbell permalink
    March 16, 2011 12:10 pm

    Reading through the comments (and, wow, Deborah — for a two day old blog, we seem to be pretty well established!), I’d point out that there’s spam and there’s nonprofit spam, and I make a real distinction. Adams55 is right that spam is a fact of life that won’t go away soon, and I wouldn’t write a post like this to a viagra or cheap mortgage spammer. I think we’re motivated here as much, or more, by concern for the NPos that spam as we are annoyance. It’s one thing when your neighbor wears their pants hanging below the waist — it’s another when it’s your brother, you know?

  13. March 16, 2011 12:22 pm

    NO MORE SPAM!! My inbox is overflowing with emails.

  14. March 16, 2011 12:25 pm

    im sorry for not better clarifying my point on how you are to blame for your grief. now dont get me wrong, you are not solely to blame, but you did give your email address out, they did not just type in a random address and send you mail on a daily basis on a lucky guess of random characters. so with that being said, mark said unwanted emails as spam, you can still read them in your spam folder, you know, when it wont be frivolously wasting your valuable email checking time. i dont mean to come off as a complete dick, but i suppose i have been, and for that i apologize, ive been dealing with spam mail for about 15 years now, and i would have to be a real piece of work if i let it ruin my day to such an extent. dont let this matter ruin your day, there is indeed a resolution. again, sorry for being an ass.

    • March 16, 2011 12:42 pm

      Thank you, Adams55, for your helpful clarification!

      I suppose that I should offer a clarification in turn.

      The authors of this site are all perfectly capable of hitting the “spam” button. We are not exclusively concerned about our own in-boxes.

      We (the authors here) are all technology professional who work with or for nonprofit organizations. We believe that spam is a bad idea, even in a good cause, and we don’t want to be complicit in bad behavior. (With the jobs we do, this is a very real possibility.) We want to make the case that a nonprofit that sends unsolicited bulk email is doing a disservice not just to the recipients of the messages but to the nonprofit’s cause.

      Therefore, we are doing our best to raise awareness among our nonprofit colleagues that sending spam is discourteous, unethical, illegal, and ineffective.

    • Peter Campbell permalink
      March 16, 2011 1:46 pm

      The problem with “it’s your fault because you gave your email address out” is that it equates to “it’s your fault your house was robbed because you have a house”. Spam is a problem; the victims do have to jump through incredible hoops to minimize it. No matter how many you jump through, the only way to truly avoid it is to not use email, and that’s a ridiculous extreme. But, adams55, as we keep pointing out, this blog is not about spam in general, and this post was not intended for your run of the mill spammers, who I don’t imagine would ever listen to any arguments I might make as to why they shouldn’t be the blight on society that they are. This post is intended for over-enthusiastic, well-meaning associates of mine who might, in their enthusiasm for their causes, become spammers.

    • Galaxian permalink
      March 16, 2011 2:24 pm

      A simple solution I have found useful involves having two email accounts. The one I use for commercial or public dealings gets its contents saved or trashed daily, and spammers are welcome to drop in. The other account, for personal communications, has a short address list. It gets a few random spams, but not much.

    • Erin McMahon permalink
      March 16, 2011 7:07 pm

      I’ve been spammed repeatedly by organizations who I never gave my email address to – for any purpose at all. I don’t imagine too many nonprofits are into scraping emails, but I do think there are many that buy lists, perhaps never suspecting that they are getting scraped emails.

      Plus, even when I do give my email address, I am careful to do so only when I have been provided a clear understanding of what my email address will be used for. Just because I give you permission to email me, say, a confirmation of a volunteer opportunity that I’ve signed up for doesn’t mean I want your newsletter.

  15. March 16, 2011 12:52 pm

    Andreas is correct. The idea that sending an email should be free and not require a “stamp” is one of the most pernicious ideas ever to infect humanity. This comment is worth what you paid for it.

    Excellent blog post, btw.

    • Galaxian permalink
      March 16, 2011 1:33 pm

      Email is not free, of course. The server hosting your email account is sponsored by advertisers, both commercial and nonprofit. In other words, by the much-hated spammers. As happened with cable TV, it seems likely users will end up enduring ads connected with email accounts they pay monthly fees for.

  16. March 16, 2011 1:28 pm

    A valid point and a well-made case. You feel strongly enough about it to have a whole blog around the topic – interesting!

  17. March 16, 2011 1:50 pm

    great post!!! congrats on being fp’ed!!!!!!!

  18. March 16, 2011 2:09 pm

    “We live in a world where most of us wrestle with two common priority-setting challenges”

    Exactly finding the next meal and keeping the lights on.

    • Peter Campbell permalink
      March 16, 2011 2:31 pm

      Well, good, true point. The funny thing about finding your post frontpaged on is that your anticipated audience broadens quite remarkably. When I wrote “we”, I pretty much expected that this post would be read by no more than 25 peers of mine in the nonprofit tech community. I’m not complaining about the exposure — it’s great — but, as you make clear, context and perspective are important factors. 🙂

  19. March 16, 2011 2:29 pm

    I worked for a non-profit, and can see just what you’re saying. It reminds me of the saying, “one man’s treasure is another man’s trash.”

  20. March 16, 2011 4:21 pm

    I agree so completely with you on this (and I’ve posted about it several times at my own site). What the charities and causes seem to forget is that respect for boundaries is a qualifier upon the worthiness of a cause I will contribute to, for me and for many others. Uninvited is uninvited. If I come to you and ask for help or info, the door is open – but ONLY for that transaction, not to a permanent “fake friendship” in perpetuity.

  21. March 16, 2011 4:38 pm

    As an Identity Theft Risk Manager, I can tell you that if you send emails no matter who or what it is for, they ALL need to have an opt-out available on them, either by replying with OPT-OUT in subject line, or via a link to click.

    This is law set by the FTC, for fare and protected consumer act.

    If you have (I did it) selected to recieve something from a website or organization, and you decide later you no longer want it, you need to be able to select the option to discontinue their emails, and not recieve more spam, if you have opted out at least 3 times, I always give 3 strikes, you then can send the “spam” they send you to the FTC as being a Spammer.

  22. March 16, 2011 4:54 pm

    I seem to have at least 1-2 spam emails a day which are easy to find because they are like or something like that. I used to get none, but now I tend to get at least some spam emails a day. And, I seem to get signed up for newsletters that I don’t even know what they’re talking about. I can’t stand spam, but it seems to keep coming no matter how many times I mark it ‘spam.’

  23. March 16, 2011 5:04 pm

    Is spam effective?

    One imagines so; otherwise those involved would have given up by now – although calculating possible ‘conversion rates’, i.e. from spam into a sale of some sort, nonetheless remains something of a mystery.

    What I’ve always found interesting is that here in the UK it is not possible to obtain Patent protection for spam….however, there is a US Patent relating to spam and I believe it was successfully filed as, “…a method for conducting business”.

    Go figure!

  24. March 16, 2011 6:13 pm

    If you find email bad try walking down a street full of Chuggers smiling and waving their arms at you.

  25. March 16, 2011 7:26 pm

    I think I get more in the regular mail than my email. Such a waste of paper. I’m not sure why I don’t get spammed in my email with this stuff. Maybe because it’s gmail and I never look at the spam mail.

  26. March 16, 2011 7:34 pm

    well that certainly puts a different spin on it, my apologies completely.

    • March 16, 2011 8:49 pm

      We never dreamed that anyone outside our professional circle would read our blog, and were taken by surprise when WordPress featured it.


  27. March 16, 2011 7:46 pm

    Good post! I couldn’t agree more. It is becoming more and more obvious to me that companies and non-profits that have my email address are selling them to lists for profit. I get emails from new non-profits every day asking me for contributions! It is making me hesitant to give out my email or even want to make purchases online that require my email. I agree with Peter Campbell’s above comment when he said, “‘it’s your fault because you gave your email address out” that it equates to “it’s your fault your house was robbed because you have a house”. I liked that analogy.

  28. March 16, 2011 8:47 pm

    They garner support by being good at what they do, as opposed to being good at getting in my face, or inbox, as the case might be.

    Loved this. It’s hard with a religious NPO, though. It’s like you’re unsubscribing from God.

    Congratulations on being FP!!

    • March 16, 2011 11:38 pm

      Yeah, it pulls at heart-strings when seeming religious folks solicit. Oh well…..
      Congrats on being FP! K

  29. March 16, 2011 9:06 pm

    It is truly weird how many people/organisations have a blind spot for when they, themselves, spam.

    I recall in particular an incident when I went to college: One of the students’ organisations mailed the entire school with some message that would interest possibly one-in-a-hundred. When I complained that they were engaging in spamming, that they should leave me out of their mailing lists, and that there were local news groups (this was at a time when news groups were still a significant part of the Internet) far better suited for their purposes, I received a very rude reply that denied any spamming—and which claimed that due to the low penetration of news groups and the low proportion of people interested, email was the only option for them to reach their goals. Paraphrased to emphasize the between-the-lines message: We benefit more from sending the email than the users from receiving it and we justify mailing everyone instead using proper channels by their being too many opt-outs from these channels—spam if I ever saw it.

    I would suggest a basic rule of thumb: If a message is unsolicited, it is only acceptable when written explicitly for the one receiver. (This rule has a reduced applicability where e.g. friends, or colleagues are concerned, but will work well in a “sales and marketing” context.)

    • March 17, 2011 12:13 am

      It’s a common thing, especially with non-profits: the people sending the mail (or making the phone call, or whatever) believe so strongly in their cause that they cannot imagine a reasonable person disagreeing. And when someone agrees with the cause but disagrees with the method of promoting the cause, there’s often total cognitive dissonance.

      So, yes, we can report spam and eventually their mail will get blocked, but that doesn’t serve to educate the sender. They can’t understand why the mail was blocked; they’re more likely to cry “censorship!” than take the time to consider that maybe some of the recipients didn’t want it.

      This will be a tough education process, and I’m very glad to see this blog take it on.

      • Peter Campbell permalink
        March 17, 2011 12:18 am

        I think that’s an important point, J.D. On another list (discussing this blog), someone suggested putting NPO’s that spam on the Spamhaus lists, that many ISPs subscribe to. I think that’s a last resort — education is much more effective and humane a response. I know that it’s a lot of what motivated Deborah to start this blog.

  30. March 17, 2011 6:10 am

    True. I keep open new email, then get overflow, dump it, and then open a new email…

  31. March 17, 2011 11:42 am

    Great post. Sometimes I think spam isn’t effective. It irritates many beyond belief. Do we really need to receive a daily reminder? I don’t think so.

  32. spmaloney809 permalink
    March 17, 2011 12:09 pm

    I love this post. You word everything brilliantly and concisely. I don’t see what organization in their right mind would want to send spam emails. They are not getting their point across at all. It not quantity its quality in this situation. Big Companies need to lay back and think of a Monthly email at least. Maybe even having the first paragraph explaining the company and the opt-out button right up top. This would save everyone time by not having to skim the email looking for the opt-out and you would also know what the company is all about. I understand where you trying to get with your post but some companies can not get their name out without sending emails to everyone. But then again the companies are more then able to spread their name on Google rather then my email. Only solution is the two email trick. One private and one public (doesn’t prevent from all spam but makes it easier to filter).

  33. March 17, 2011 12:46 pm

    You’ve independently arrived at the invalidity of the “nonprofit” excuse for spam. See here for the rest:

  34. March 17, 2011 1:10 pm

    I loved the photo and title. I’m glad you were freshly pressed cause people need to read the message you send.

  35. stylistnc permalink
    March 17, 2011 5:51 pm

    I guess it’s better an email than a phone call. I always hate when I answer the phone (even though I have caller I.D. so I have no excuse) and it’s a soliciting phone call for money and I’m trying politely to say no. Esp. the police/fire dept one. Talk about guilt. At least with an email you can just hit delete. The phone call doesn’t stop till you answer it.

  36. March 18, 2011 9:26 pm

    If a mentally ill person hears voices, does that qualify as spam?

  37. March 21, 2011 9:17 pm

    This raises an interesting point that all for-profit and non-profit businesses must deal with: When does email become spam? Is it once a week, twice a week, twice a month, etc.? Admittedly, people are far more tolerant of emails they receive from non-profits than from for-profit businesses, but that tolerance only goes so far. My personal belief is that if you provide quality on a regular basis – and it can be more frequent for non-profits, that you will get a far better ROI in response to your emails and any other campaigns your non-profit runs.

    • March 21, 2011 10:52 pm

      It’s not just about the quality or the quantity of email, although those are formidable variables. It’s also about limiting your bulk email to those who have explicitly given you permission to send it to them. An opt-out basis isn’t good enough; the recipients have to opt-in before you start sending them bulk email.

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