Nonprofit Online News
News of the Online Nonprofit Community




Current News
 News Archives
 Book Reviews
 Feature Articles
 Free White Papers
 About News

Classified Ads

Make a Donation
Read Testimonials
Submit News

Enter your email address for a free weekly edition.

About Subscription

[Printer Friendly Version]

Getting Blasted: Six Ways that Nonprofit Email Misses the Point and Damages Relationships with Stakeholders

Related Links:

Seminar: Beyond the Email Blast: Tapping the Full Power of Email Marketing

If you found this article interesting or helpful, please consider making a donation to Nonprofit Online News. It will probably feel good!

By Michael C. Gilbert, April 30, 2009

    I have been thinking a lot about the direction that nonprofit email practices have taken in the last ten years. Although I've been a strong advocate of the use of email, I have had this growing feeling that something has gone wrong. I'll be teaching a workshop on this topic soon, and I couldn't resist describing what I see.

What does the phrase "email blast" say about our relationship to our stakeholders? I don't know about you, but I don't particularly want to get "blasted" by the organizations I support. Even if the direct object of the verb is the email and not the stakeholders, it makes the most important quality of that email the volume being sent, not the purpose or the message. But the word alone just provides a convenient label for a much more serious disease.

The Email Blast Syndrome is reflected in a range of symptoms, all of which represent the destruction of email as an intimate medium for communication between and organization and its stakeholders. It was this intimacy - a product of the small scale, two-way characteristics of the medium - that drove me to write "The Email Manifesto" in 2001. That manifesto is widely credited as having helped ignite a widespread interest in email communication in nonprofit organizations. Looking at what's happened since, I am no longer 100% sure that this was a good thing.

What follows is a description of some key symptoms of the Email Blast Syndrome. As with any disease, not everyone has it. And not all who have it have every symptom. But if you see yourself in any of these, then it's time for some rehabilitation.

    (1) Self-Linking: Most nonprofit email is obsessively narcissistic. The number one indicator of this is the proportion of links to their own website versus links to pages of interest to their stakeholders but located on some other organization's site. Indeed, most nonprofit email never links off-site at all.

    (2) Ask, Ask, Ask: Even though email is a medium that makes genuine cultivation affordable, nonprofits can't seem to resist sprinkling their email with asks of one kind or another. Fundraising appeals dominate, of course. But often it seems like hardly a single news item can escape their desire to make some sort of request.

    (3) Fake Urgency: Starting with the obnoxious phrase "Donate Now", nonprofits communicate a sense of urgency about every ask. Every now and then, something is in fact urgent. Unfortunately, typical nonprofit cash flow pressures, the lack of a model for long term cultivation, and a simple lack of rhetorical inspiration lead to an entirely non-credible pattern of urgent requests.

    (4) Much Too Long: Although most email is never opened and most of the email that is opened remains so for seconds, most nonprofits seem to think that their email will be the exception. Now email isn't twitter, with its 140 character limit, but it is still a predominantly brief medium. That brevity, combined with its back-and-forth nature, is part of what makes it so intimate and powerful. Most nonprofit email doesn't respect this quality at all.

    (5) Publication-Like: For most organizations, the more important they think email is, the more they end up treating messages like websites. Like a fancy magazine on a publication schedule, they have deadlines and production channels. It's expensive, inflexible, and very self-perpetuating.

    (6) Fear of Responses: One of email's greatest strengths is that people can respond to it. Most nonprofit email is constructed in such a way as to discourage such responses. (A magazine feel doesn't exactly invite a quick personal note.) In some cases, they even technically limit such responses. On those occasions when they do invite a response (through a web form, which is fine), it's almost always an ask.

This doesn't capture every symptom of Email Blast Syndrome, just those that are visible to someone reading a lot of organizational email. Some of the most important symptoms - the lack of cultivation, the interaction with social media, and the effect on other strategies - are mostly hidden from view.

I've had many occasions to bring up this analysis with organizations, showing varying degrees of these symptoms. I have a lot of sympathy for the response, which is often silence or mild defensiveness. Sometimes, I have the satisfaction of seeing the organization rehabilitate their email practices. But usually, an unspoken sense of exceptionalism exerts itself. Somehow, these observations don't apply to them. Without so much as testing these assumptions, they proceed as if their stakeholders are uniquely interested in them and only them, enjoy getting asked all the time, buy into the endless urgency, relish long email messages, are reassured by high production values, and really don't have anything to say themselves. I invite them to prove that they're the exception, but no one has taken me up on that yet.

What about you? Are you showing symptoms? Are your stakeholder relationships full of craters left behind by endless blasts?



If you found this article interesting or helpful,
please consider making a donation to Nonprofit Online News.
It will probably feel good!



Copyright 1997-2014. All rights reserved.
Nonprofit Online News is a program of The Gilbert Center. All opinions and observations are by Michael Gilbert unless otherwise noted. | Contact Us | Submit News Tips: Form or Email: | If you have any trouble with this site write to:

Web Nonprofit News
Authors' Network

The Authentic Organization
Gavin's Digital Diner
The Guru's Handbook
The Nexilist's Notebook
Rare Medium
Review All in One Place!


Training Info

Nonprofit Technology Consulting Skills (Available Anytime)

Course Corrections: A Mid-Career LifeWork Seminar (Available Anytime)


View All

Does Evidence Matter to Grantmakers? Data, Logic, and the Lack thereof in the Largest U.S. Foundations

Case Studies

Doing Well by Doing Good? A Report on Work Satisfaction in Civil Society

Communication Centered Technology Planning, 2nd Edition

The Guide to Nonprofit Email

The Gilbert Center