Dear Charities: Please Stop Spamming Me

The estimated time to read this article is 8 minutes

Share on Twitter           

I have at least five email addresses. Each has a separate purpose: work, friends, website, etc.

One of them is for crap.

I give it out when some organization wants — or, more frequently, demands — an email address so they can send me crap. I check this account far less frequently than the other four.

Unfortunately, it’s also the address I give to charities and fundraising agencies.

This is why:Message from the CDA claiming to be my tax receipt

When I saw that subject line in late December, I did a double take.

I was nearly certain I hadn’t made a donation to the Canadian Diabetes Association (CDA) this year. I supported them a few years ago when a friend lost her Dad to diabetes, but I’m on leave and money is tight.

But the subject line made me wonder enough to open the message.

After I did, it was immediately obvious I’d been had:

This email didn’t contain a tax receipt. For the record, they normally come within a day or two of making an online donation.

It was actually spam inviting me to make a donation by disguising the ask as useful correspondence.

I understand why I received this email.

But it still made me mad.My response to the CDA

Fundraising is a tough gig

I have had the pleasure of collaborating with many fundraising professionals over the last 10 years.

In Canada, their profession is inherently tough. There are dozens of worthy causes and good organizations doing important work, but our relatively small population size means the donor pool is limited compared to that found in other countries like the United States.

Beyond that constraint, there’s some evidence charitable support is dwindling.

Factor in the global recession, well-publicized government spending cuts and donor fatigue from the endless global onslaught of tsunamis, earthquakes, wars and famines, and you have a tough landscape in which to squeeze more blood from the proverbial stone.

Yet, if you spend any time with fundraisers they will be the first to tell you that success in their profession relies on managing relationships and expectations.

Relationships are fundamentally about communication, which brings me back to that email.

I get that year-end is a crucial time to shore up donations.

I get that it’s hard to get messages past spam filters and email fatigue and everything else competing for my attention.

But misleading me — some might say, lying to me — by making me think I have given you a donation when you are actually writing to ask me for one is not okay.

To their credit, the CDA apologized and has promised to stop talking to me unless I ask them to:CDA will stop sending me spam

My Support is Whimsical and Limited . . .

No fundraiser wants to hear this, but I make charitable donations according to my whims.

That doesn’t mean I take the causes I support lightly or that I don’t do my research.

It does mean that my donation budget is (really) small and the demands upon it are considerable.

Here is a snapshot of the charities I supported in 2011 and why:

  1. The Red Cross’s Japanese Tsunami/Earthquake relief fund — I couldn’t watch the news coverage of the devastation there and do nothing. I hate feeling helpless.
  2. The Daily Bread Food Bank — many people in my community need help; it is easy to contemplate a universe in which I might be one of them.
  3. UNICEF’s Horn of Africa relief fund — famine should not be possible in the 21st century and the need of children there is so dire. I ended up giving UNICEF two small donations because the Canadian Government wasn’t matching funds when I gave the first time.

In past years, I have also supported:

  • Disasters of the month via the Red Cross (Darfur, Haiti’s earthquake, the 2004 tsunami, etc.)
  • Charities chosen by relations and friends to honour a death or to celebrate a marriage.
  • Cystic Fibrosis and mental health charities because I have personal reasons to support research that aims to mitigate or end these diseases.
  • The hospitals where my kids were born or received medical care.
  • The World Wildlife Fund because my government really doesn’t care about climate change or the environment in general and every now and then I get depressed about it.
  • Family, colleagues or friends riding, running or walking to end cancer or some other medical condition — if someone is willing to sweat and train like crazy to raise money for something they believe in, it’s hard to resist the social pressure to help them out. This is especially true if you have hit them up for comparable support in the past.

I am sure each person who supports charities could come up with a similar list.

Regardless of what I support or why, there are four points worth noting in this exercise:

  1. Whether I give has little to do with my intellectual support for the cause.
  2. Marketing messages enter into my decision-making process only when delivered by the news media or people I personally know.
  3. I don’t make donations expecting to get anything but a tax receipt.
  4. Emotion and social pressure, not intellect, drive my decision-making process.

. . . So Don’t Tick Me Off

When I make a donation, I am not signing up for spam.

Support for your cause right now doesn’t mean I necessarily want to hear about your various worthy activities next week or next month or next year.

Mostly, I want to give you money that you can use to do worthy things and not think about you for a while.

I have access to the Internet and social media. If I want to know what you’re up to, I will seek you out.

And if I tell you not to talk to me, I really want you to listen.

Build Opt-Outs into Your Donation Process — and Respect Them

Each time I make a donation, I look for an opt-out from newsletters or future correspondence. If it’s there, I always check it.

It rarely works.

Usually, I get at least two or three email newsletters or direct mail pieces anyway.

Then I have to look for unsubscribe options or send the physical mail back marked refused before the charity in question gets the message and backs off:Unsubscribe option at the bottom of CAMH newsletter

The time and resources this activity wastes — both for me and the charity — ticks me off.Managing my subscriptions

Semi-hilariously, I got a newsletter (really a fundraising ask) today in my snail mail while writing this post:Newsletter and ask package from the World Wifelife Fund

It is already in my recycling box.

Does Spam Really Help Your Bottom Line?

I get that sending out address labels or greeting cards to everyone in a charity’s database results in the positive two to five per cent response that charities depend on to make their fundraising targets.

But I wonder how many people disengage because they are tired of being bombarded by those campaigns to capture that mediocre percentage.

That said, if I have explicitly told you not to send me spam (no matter how well-intentioned or crucial said spam is to you and your campaign), I expect you to listen.

In the age of customized databases and social media, not listening is inexcusable.

And guess what?

Of the three charities I supported last year, just one has always kept its communication promises and never sends me a thing. Feel free to guess which one in the comments.

I’m tempted to send them an extra donation this year for good behaviour.