Thank God It’s Friday.

It’s been a horrible week in the real world:

Massive evacuations and fear of Taliban retaliation in Afghanistan… historically massive and destructive wild fires in the West… reactionary and racist anti-democracy, voter suppression legislation enacted in Texas… tacit approval by the U.S. Supreme Court of a contrived, mean and vicious law imposing a near-total abortion ban on women in Texas…and the disastrous pounding of the Gulf Coast and Northest by Hurricane Ida whose destruction was magnified and intensified by climate change…and, of course, more bad news of social disintegration accelerated by the pandemic and it’s Delta variant.

Of course, all this news, and more, will be breathlessly blasted in both true and distorted form to your email inbox in hopes of triggering a donation quicker than I can say, “Give by midnight to get a 10X match.”

Knowing the email-tsunami will be particularly awful this long Labor Day weekend I think it appropriate to discuss the acquisition, use and abuse of email lists.

First, a question for you.  How many times a year do you make your postal mail donor list available to others?   None…3 or 4 times a year…one or twice a month?  Every organization I’m familiar with carefully schedule and limits the use of names and postal addresses of its donors.

How about 348 times?  That the average number of times political organizations and campaigns made their email lists available during the 2020 election cycle according to The Princeton Corpus of Political Emails.

Of course, I realize there’s a difference in long-term/short-term aims between political organizations and other nonprofit and charitable organizations.  BUT….no amount of difference warrants this degree of wonton promiscuity.

The fact is that the manner of acquisition and the all-too-often profligate use of email lists is an issue that affects us all.  Even if your own organization is scrupulously careful about the use of its lists –whether postal or digital—the practices of others are driving donors (some of whom are also yours) away. And it’s about to get much worse as we enter the mid-term election cycle and as advocacy organizations tackle the headline issues confronting Congress, courts and state legislatures.

For years we’ve expressed our concern over the abusive overuse of email and the damage its indiscriminate use by those who have no understanding of donor experience and commitment is doing to retention rates. Few organizations bother to find out.

In the mistaken belief that email is basically ‘costless’, most organizations—even the campaign committees of the political parties — are costing themselves boatloads of revenue both short and long term.

Unlike postal mail and the principles of its application that have evolved over the past 50 years, email is relatively new and unprincipled — meaning there’s little proven nuanced knowledge of how it works. (Hint: It works the same as direct mail except most of those who work in the digital space don’t have the remotest idea of basic, proven principles of marketing and communications.)

Currently, even the more sophisticated folks in the digital email trade concentrate on things like ‘deliverability’, ‘open rates’, ‘click throughs and other metrics that are superficial at best.

Few bother to understand the issues of frequency, content and audience — and what that combination of factors does to help or damage donor commitment and lifetime value.

We’ll deal with all that in a post slated for next week.  Meanwhile, the issues of fraud, misrepresentation and unethical email are gaining attention and should be of concern to every Agitator reader.

In piece titled Political fundraising platforms are being pressured to crack down on deceptive practices to lure in and hook campaign donors. Axios, the political news service revealed that “Fundraising vendors for political parties and campaigns are facing a three-pronged effort to weed out the bad actors: critical media coverage, scrutiny from federal regulators and, increasingly, demands from their own customers and clients.

Tactics such as the phantom contribution-matching offer and the pre-checked recurring donation box have been used as both political parties ramp up their grassroots fundraising operations. (If you want more on scumbag practices, particularly fleecing the elderly read this piece from The New York Times.

I talked to Josh Nelson, partner in The Juggernaut Project, a firm that acquires/builds email lists for Democratic campaigns and progressive advocacy nonprofits.  Over the past 15 years Josh has worked on social change causes and been a pioneer in the process of ethically building digital lists.

In the course of our conversation he sketched out a spectrum of practices ranging from the downright “scumbag” to transparent and ethical.  There are legitimate, ethical firms like Care2, Daily Kos and The Juggernaut Project who help organizations build lists – primarily through the acquisition of names/email addresses using petitions.  These firms have clear privacy and opt-in policies and let folks who sign the petitions know their names are being acquired for additional use.  They provide options for opting-out and,  more rarely, an opt-in option.

At the unethical end of the spectrum are shadowy firms, brokers who, for example, buy the donor or volunteer email lists of political campaigns that have ended.  Or acquire lists in even a far less transparent way.  These are the firms that advise the buyer to ‘sprinkle’ these new names among the organization’s names that have already opted in.  This minimizes the chances that the organization’s delivery rate or reputation will be compromised.

Bottomline is the acquisition of email names is BIG business.  Millions and millions of names.  Millions of dollars.  And plenty of room for abuse.

What to Do About the Problem of Shady Lists and Shady Practices

Neither public exposure nor shame is likely to solve the problem.  At least it hasn’t so far.   So here are some possible remedies.

  • Federal legislation. Amy Klobuchar and Dick Durbin have introduced legislation to ban deceptive monthly giving practices. The Federal Election Commission and the Department of Justice are also reviewing other possible solutions.
  • Credit card companies. Mount a campaign aimed at credit card companies cutting off service to unscrupulous fundraisers and politicians the way they’ve cut off some porn sites.
  • State regulation. Some states, like California, already have strong privacy regulations.  These could be extended to include opt-in or opt-out provisions where email list acquisition practices are concerned.

Of course, legislation and regulation take time, lots of time.  And, historically they haven’t proved particularly effective; at least where direct mail practices and physical mailing lists were concerned.

Instead, Josh Nelson and a group of 50 other practitioners and nonprofit digital experts are recommending that CRM and fundraising platform companies take action in cracking down on deceptive and unethical practices.  Afterall, the CRMs provide the tools enabling their clients to build and communicate with digital lists.

This approach is outlined in a letter the group sent to EveryAction a major progressive CRM and also owner of NGP VAN a large Democratic fundraising and voter contact firm. (Full disclosure: I am an investor in one of the companies purchased by EveryAction.)

The letter notes, “While a vast majority of your company’s customers use your tools responsibly, your customers also include prolific political spammers and some of the most egregious senders of deceptive political emails in the industry.”

The letter singles  out the use of recurring donations among a handful of practices it hopes EveryAction will help weed out among its customer base.

  • It includes top Democratic officials and every one of its party’s national campaign committees.
  • It also wants the company to limit fundraising emails to recipients who’ve proactively opted in and ban misleading appeals like matching offers and fundraising asks designed to mimic personal correspondence or collection notices.

EveryAction’s general manager for digital, Mike Liddel, published a statement on NGPVAN’s website that took a lawyerly approach to the issue.

  • The company already bars its customers from sending spam or unsolicited emails, Liddel wrote.
  • “[A]ny client who engages in illegal actions using our tools, including but not limited to fraud, such as deceiving donors into making unintended donations, is subject to immediate termination,” he said.
  • Unaddressed were some popular fundraising tactics that are legal but deceptive, like many of those identified in the letter to the company.

Josh Nelson, says he doesn’t think the statement fully addresses those concerns.

  • “[T]he response as a whole falls far short of what the letter called for and fails to address several of the key concerns raised,” he said.
  • “My hope is that there’s some real reflection happening within the company about these issues and that a decision is made by leadership to finally start treating them with the urgency they deserve.”

Here at the Agitator we’re delighted to see the spotlight focusing on these important issues that ultimately affect every fundraiser and every nonprofit.

EveryAction, as a major CRM and thought leader in this space can help lead the way, but the chore is not theirs alone.  Every CRM, list acquisition firm,  and fundraising platform owes it to their customers to do the same. And each of us owes it to the other to shine a bright light on bad practices.