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The topics discussed here grow out of the bread-and-butter issues that confront my consulting and software clients on a daily basis. We'll talk about prosaic stuff like Membership Management, Meetings and Events Management and Fundraising, broader ideas like security and software project management, and the social, cultural, and organizational issues that impact IT decision-making.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

SPAM and the not-for-profit

Talking to my coworkers and clients, I've become aware that there are misconceptions about the regulations governing marketing email. People are afraid they will be labelled spammers and be hit with draconain fines. TechSoup this week is featuring a 2003 article by Lynn Mitchell about the law and its effect on non-profits. Since the article was written before the law took effect and disagreed in one respect with what I thought was the case I did a bit of further research.

Mitchell's article seems to ignore what I've seen stated very clearly over and over again: that the federal law voided the much stronger state laws already on the books. Many people have been very critical of the law for this reason. So I'm not sure the Utah example she gives is still valid, or her concern about how regulations differ from state to state. But I'd consult an attorney for a definitive reading on this.

But here's what I've found from the FTC as well as sites critical of the legislation as being too weak.

Until 1/1/2004, the rules against spam were governed by a host of state regulations. Most of these were much stricter than the federal statute which came into play in 2004 and which specifically supercedes pre-existing state rules. The federal law is known as the CAN-SPAM Act. The acronym stands for Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing. The Act met with general disapproval from the grass-roots movement trying to ban unsolicted marketing emails, who called it the You-CAN-SPAM act. Here's an example of how the anti-Spam movement saw the act.

Let's clear up the specific misconceptions I've run into.

Misconception 1. Lists must be opt-in. It is now illegal to send unsolicited marketing communications by email unless users have requested it.
This is not true. If you have legitimately collected the email address, you can email to it. The law does prohibit you from harvesting addresses from other websites or generating addresses at random by means of a program to find ones that exist, or trading in email lists that have opted out of someone else's program.

Misconception 2. If I am sending a marketing communication, I need an automatic function the email links to that will allow the user to opt-out with a single click.
This is also not true. Providing an email address that the recipient can use to opt-out is completely acceptable according to the law.

Misconception 3. It is hard to know exactly what I am allowed to mail to my member list.
You can always mail project, product, or company updates to your client, member, or donor lists, except for individuals who have specifically opted out, as long as the opt-put mechanism appears on the emails.

So what does the law require? An overview of its provisions can be found at the Federal Trade Commission website and include most importantly:
  • It bans false or misleading header information. Your email's "From," "To," and routing information – including the originating domain name and email address – must be accurate and identify the person who initiated the email.

  • It prohibits deceptive subject lines. The subject line cannot mislead the recipient about the contents or subject matter of the message.

  • It requires that your email give recipients an opt-out method. You must provide a return email address or another Internet-based response mechanism that allows a recipient to ask you not to send future email messages to that email address, and you must honor the requests. It is allowable for it to take up to ten days to drop someone from the list. You may create a "menu" of choices to allow a recipient to opt out of certain types of messages, but you must include the option to end any commercial messages from the sender.
So the impact on a non-profit marketing using legitimately obtained email addresses should not be too burdensome. Lynn Mitchell points out in fact that you can use the the opt-out opportunity as a valuable marketing contact. I love people who think this way. She says
CAN-SPAM allows organizations to offer e-mail recipients a list of unsubscribe options. Used properly, the list can be used to benefit members and create goodwill for the nonprofit. The opt-out list can give members the right to request the same information delivered in different formats, such as by fax or standard mail, providing communications that align more directly with member preferences.

The opt-out list can also include a list of alternate products or services that may interest members, increasing visibility for nonprofit products and services. If members choose one of the alternate selections, they are one step closer to buying a product or service, and the nonprofit has a more targeted e-mail list. In addition, the e-mail message has communicated that the organization considers its members needs.
I hope this clears up a little of the confusion.

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Comments on "SPAM and the not-for-profit"


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (January 14, 2006 at 10:27 AM) : has a fun way to mask your email (sample) from evil spam harvesting bots.


Anonymous Anonymous said ... (August 17, 2006 at 2:21 PM) : 

here is a nice way to get back at those pests, I have been receiving faxes from 818-710-8920 for several days and cannot stop them. maybe if we all get together and send them a fax they will get some of their medicine


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