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Once Upon a Donation

April 12, 2011

When I was heralded into the status of having a working wage and expendable income, I finally was able to extend myself to the responsibility of donating. I was able to donate hard cash instead of my time. It felt great. So one of the first organizations I chose to join was the ACLU.

Within a few months, an onslaught of direct mail campaign pieces – PHYSICAL SNAIL MAIL, NOT SPAM – from liberal nonprofit organizations arrived to my mailbox. I had just moved to San Francisco, so I knew something was up. After weeks of about a dozen organizations appealing to my pocket book- most of which I had never heard of, I finally decided to call one of them.

I waded through the series of options on a phone tree until I reached the marketing department. The woman was very polite when I expressed my frustration at receiving her mailer and proceeded to guide me through the process of identifying the origin of my mail. What I learned horrified me: the ACLU had “shared” my address. How did I learn this?

In order for organizations to segment and keep track of their direct mail campaigns to their many constituents, they create codes in their databases. These codes actually appear on the label of the piece next to where your address is printed. Typically, they indicate the time period, the type of list, the type of campaign and who shared your address (or origin) like so:

SP08LOa/SP08LOb:  Spring, 2008, Loyal Donor Group A/Group B
SP08OTa/b:        Spring, 2008, One Time Donor  GroupA /Group B
SP08LAa/b:        Spring, 2008, Lapsed Donor, Group A / Group B
SP08VT:          Spring, 2008, Volunteer
SP08BV:         Spring, 2008, Bereavment List.

You can see an example of such segmentation theories on this Blackbaud Forum thread.

After calling a few of the organizations, all the mail codes led back to the ACLU.

At first I thought, “Man, I must have forgotten to Opt-Out of some checkbox.” But I went back through the entire membership sign-up process and realized there was no opportunity to declare any mailing preferences. I was unnerved at discovering that my address was shared by an organization I trusted. My response was to let my membership lapse and include a note describing the above in the renewal letter I was rejecting. I was sorry to not be able to support an organization I value so much however, I felt better in light of their hard stance on privacy and supposed protection of private data in their privacy statement.

To the brethren on this blog who experience the annoyance of having to click “Spam” on their email client to report unsolicited email- I dare you to take up the challenge of going through the above process. I think unsolicited communication of any sort is annoying. But at least in the digital realm you have some real options to bring consequences against those that don’t respect your communications preferences. 🙂

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 12, 2011 6:08 pm

    Great story. Thanks for sharing it!

  2. ThomasT permalink
    April 14, 2011 3:44 am

    Not sure when this experience dates from, but the privacy policy linked to in the blog post explicitly states that they will share your mailing info, and provides an online method of opting out.

    Also, their membership sign up form today includes an opt-in check box for allowing that data to be shared.

    Why are there all these posts about bulk mail on an anti-spam blog?

    • katerpiddah permalink
      April 14, 2011 8:22 am

      Well, you are correct in one sense: they admit online that they will use your info. I actually submitted my membership via snail mail, so I understood when reading the online privacy page that it probably had nothing to do with their mail privacy policy. I linked to that page solely to illustrate how seriously they take privacy. This incident happened to me circa 2008.

      As to your question about why a bulk mail post is included in an anti-spam blog… well, because the incident pissed me off and I thought that the theme of grievance is unsolicited communication by nonprofits who are trying to do well by the world. Is there another post here that talks about bulk mail? I thought I was the only one. 🙂


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