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Preventing the Nonprofit Spam Epidemic

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by Michael C. Gilbert, Mar. 2002

Years ago, when I was teaching fundraising to nonprofits, I frequently found myself in front of the board of directors. I would be telling them to assess how much each of them had given, to make a list of people who respect their opinion, and to make appointments to ask them to give as well. In other words, I was teaching them what every good fundraiser knows, that raising money is about relationships. They would squirm in their seats. Eventually, someone would ask the question:

"Can't we just buy a list and send people a mailing asking for a contribution?"

In other words, in Internet parlance, can't we just spam someone?

The Mail Abuse Prevention System defines spam as follows: "An electronic message is spam IF: (1) the recipient's personal identity and context are irrelevant because the message is equally applicable to many other potential recipients; AND (2) the recipient has not verifiably granted deliberate, explicit, and still-revocable permission for it to be sent; AND (3) the transmission and reception of the message appears to the recipient to give a disproportionate benefit to the sender."

As nonprofit organizations begin to embrace the enormous promise of email marketing, they are on the verge of making a very big mistake that will damage their organizational reputation and the reputation of the sector. They are on the verge of becoming spammers.

Since I'm not afraid to name names, here is an example, from one of my staff:

It seems the World Wildlife Fund bought a mailing list of people who were signed up with Columbia House Music Club, possibly through a broker. Suddenly they started sending all these people a newsletter, with the following disingenuous language: "As a member of our online community, we wanted to let you know about three great ways to get more involved with WWF and its important work..."

What? They buy your name from a list and suddenly you're a member of their online community? This sort of language just makes spamming even worse. They compounded it even further by not replying to a request for information about where they had acquired the email address.

The incredible irony here is that my colleague might actually have been interested in the information they were putting out, but was discouraged by the way they handled it.

The World Wildlife Fund is not alone. The Gilbert Center has been working with a number of nonprofit organizations to conduct a groundbreaking study of what works in nonprofit email marketing. Although teaching spam is definitely not part of that study, we have learned that a very large proportion of nonprofit organizations would become spammers, if given the opportunity.

The prevalence of buying lists for direct mail has created an environment where many nonprofit organizations can't appreciate the true opportunity provided by the Internet for building trusted relationships on a larger scale.

Sadly, we've only seen the beginning of the nonprofit spam epidemic. Although the proportion of spam we receive in our mailboxes each day will never be dominated by nonprofits, I predict that, unless large nonprofits and fundraising consultants commit to an ethos of permission and trust in online marketing, the amount of nonprofit spam will increase by several orders of magnitude in the next couple of years.

The possible consequences are disturbing: Increasing resistance for people to opt into nonprofit lists of any kind. Reduced response rates to online calls to action, volunteering, or donation. Enormous quantities of bad word of mouth for organizations which practice spamming. Reactionary legislative and technological restrictions on our ability to communicate with our stakeholders. And so on.

If we want to grow our bases of stakeholders (and we all do), there are more powerful options available to us. For example, there is a process I call Chaperoning, which I'll describe here in brief:

Instead of the World Wildlife Fund buying Columbia House's list and spamming it, they could ask Columbia House itself, which already has a relationship with its members, to send them a piece of email in which they suggest that they consider signing up for the WWF newsletter. If it seems unlikely that Columbia House would do this, then it's because they probably believe that their relationship with their members would suffer. Chaperoning enforces integrity on both parties.

The most powerful alternative of all is really quite classic. It's what I was telling those board members all those years ago. Start with our most committed stakeholders and work our way out. Enroll people. Listen to them. Be good stewards of the relationship.

If you cultivate basic sensitivity to the human relationships that are at play, then it's not so hard to avoid being a spammer. Maybe we will need a few rules and guidelines. Maybe all we need is some common sense. But if we manage to avoid the trap that nonprofit spam represents, then we'll have a chance to build relationships with our stakeholders like never before.


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