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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?
My neighbor is an aging woman living on a fixed income. A few years ago she was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s (early stages) and not too long after had difficulty deciphering between solicitation and actual bills. Because she gives to one cancer research group on a regular basis, she gets constant solicitation by phone and by snail mail and had since started giving donations to other organizations because she thought she was obligated to pay them.
We called a few of the numbers listed with these solicitations and explained the situation. We asked that they discontinue any and all solicitation so that she wouldn’t be confused about them, pay them and then have less money for the necessities. In all cases, the person on the other end was very helpful and understanding. After a few months, almost all of the solicitations had stopped. We even got her on the “do not call list”.
The year turned and she contacted the one cancer research organization that she mainly supports to make her yearly donation. Of course, we figured this was no big deal. Surely donating to one organization would be alright!
Not a week went by and she suddenly began receiving mail and phone solicitations again. Not just from that cancer organization but from many different campaigns. It quickly became apparent that there is no easy way to simply give a one time donation to one organization and not be bombarded with further solicitation.
Next year, when she asks to do her annual donation, we are going to have to do the donation in my name, so that I can more easily remove myself from the impending onslaught of solicitation or simply have her not donate at all.
This type of sharing of information between nonprofit organizations is, in fact, nonprofitspam. The experience has caused me to second guess who I personally give to. Yearly pledge calls from the organization that you’ve already given to is one thing but, when that donation triggers a flood gate of solicitation from sometimes unrelated nonprofit organizations, it makes for a horrible giving experience.
Nobody likes spam, this is not new but nonprofitspam is the worst disservice to both the donor and the solicitor.
So, I’ve joined a team of folks on the web, dedicated to calling attention to the need to get rid of this type of spam. Hopefully, we can make the giving experience a pleasure once more!
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.
My standards for bulk email sent by nonprofit organizations are fairly simple:
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.