NPTech maven Deborah Elizabeth Finn  started a blog last week called "No Nonprofit Spam ". As a well-known NPTech consultant, Deborah is far from alone in finding herself regularly subscribed to nonprofit email lists that she has never opted into. But, as opposed to just complaining about what is, in anyone's definition (except possibly the sender's) unsolicited commercial email; Deborah took the opportunity to try and educate. It's a controversial undertaking. Nobody likes spam. Many of us like nonprofits, and aren't going to hold them to the same level of criticism as we will that anonymous meds or mortgages dealer; and the measures that we take against the seamy spammers are pretty harsh. Even if nonprofits are guilty of the spamming crime, should they be subject to the same punishments?
Spam, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. So, for the purposes of this conversation, let's agree on a definition of nonprofit spam. Sending one email to someone that you have identified as a potential constituent, either by engaging them in other media or purchasing their name from a list provider, is, at worst, borderline spam, and not something that I would join a campaign to complain about. If I delete the message and don't hear from the NPO again, no big deal. But subscribing me to a recurring list without my express buy-in is what I consider spamming. And that's the focus of Deborah's blog (which is naming names ) and the action that goes from email engagement to email abuse, for the purposes of this post.
In my post to the No Nonprofit Spam website , I made the point that we're all inundated with email and we can only support so many orgs, so NPOs would do better to build their web site and their Charity Navigator  rating than to push their messages, uninvited, into our inboxes. It's a matter of being respectful of constituent priorities.
There are two motivations for overdoing it on the emails. One is the mildly understandable, but not really forgiveable mistake of overenthusiasm for one's mission. Believing that the work you do is so important that subscribing people who have expressed no interest to your list is warranted. That's a mistake of naivety more than anything else.
The less forgivable excuse is the typical spam calculation: no matter how many people you offend, enough people will click on it to justify the excess. After all, it's cost-justified by the response rate, right?
The downside in both cases is that, if you only count the constituents you gained, then you're missing something of great important to nonprofits and little import to viagra salesman. The people you offended might have otherwise been supporters. The viagra spammer isn't going to pitch their product through other avenues. It's a low investment, so any yeild is great gain. But you likely have people devoting their full hearts to your cause. You're in the business of building relationships, not burning them. And you will never know how many consttuents that you might have gained through more respectful avenues if you treat them callously with your email initiatives.
Worse, the standard ways that individuals deal with spam could be very challenging for an NPO to deal with. In the comments to my No Nonprofit Spam post, some people advocated doing more than just marking the messages as spam, but also reporting the offending orgs to Spamcop , who then list them with Spamhaus , the organization that maintains block lists of known spammers that large ISPs subscribe to. By overstepping the bounds of net courtesy, you could not only alienate individuals, but wreak havoc with your ability to reach people by email at all. My take is that reporting NPOs -- even the ones who, by my above definition, spam -- is unusually cruel to organizations who do good in the world. But I'm a nonprofit professional. Many of the people that we might be offending aren't going to be so sympathetic.
So, what do you think? Is spam from a nonprofit any different from spam from a commercial vendor? Should nonprofits be held to the same level of accountability as viagra spammers? Are even single unsolicited emails spam, or are they permissable? I searched for some nonprofit-focused best practices before completing this article, and didn't come up with anything that differentiated our industry from the commercial ones, but I think there's a difference. Just as nonprofits are exempt from the Do Not Call lists, I think we deserve some exemptions in email. But I could be wrong, and what would serve us all well is a clear community policy on email engagement. Does anyone have any to recommend?
Cartoon borrowed from Rob Cottingham's Noise To Signal  collection.