The following is an excerpt from Robots Make Bad Fundraisers – How Nonprofits Can Maintain the Heart in the Digital Age by Steven Shattuck, published by Bold & Bright Media.

Many organizations (nonprofit and for-profit) get themselves into trouble, legally and by reputation, for abusing email. Whether it’s a donation solicitation email or an innocuous organization update, many emails and newsletters can find themselves in a spam folder faster than you can hit send.

These issues typically stem from a misunderstanding in who and how you can and cannot email, even after procuring an email address.

Understanding Opt-Ins

When someone freely gives you their email address, they can fall into one of two categories of “permission” –

  • Express permission – they give you their email address because they want and expect to receive emails from you
  • Implied permission – a transaction occurs that involves an exchange of email addresses (such as a donation or a business card exchange)

With express permission, a user may visit your website and sign up for your newsletter. An email confirmation takes place, and they are added to your list. This is sometimes referred to as a confirmed opt-in.

Implied permission scenarios are typically unconfirmed opt-ins. For example, someone may give you a business card, and you email them later. There was no explicit request to be emailed, but they did give you their address.

In either case, you should follow CAN-SPAM guidelines. It should be noted that the CAN-SPAM Act exempts “transactional or relationship messages.” In other words, if someone makes a donation and gives you their email address, you are free to email them, even without expressly stating that you will email them. However, you should also employ email best practices to ensure that the recipient does not become fatigued or irritated by your emails, resulting in an unsubscribe or spam report.

For nonprofits, there are many different scenarios through which you could receive an email address. Here are a few of the most common, and the actions you should and should not take for each:

Someone signed up via our website to receive our email newsletter. Can we email them? Yes.

This is about the safest opt-in you will receive. However, if you want to make sure that the subscriber does not unsubscribe and stays engaged, be sure to give them the opportunity to sign up for one or more topic-specific newsletters, not one generic newsletter. Having multiple subscription lists will ensure that you deliver only the content they are interested in receiving.

Someone donated via our website. We asked for their email address and they gave it to us. Can we email them? Yes, but…

You should do two things:

  • On the sign-up form, explicitly state that by giving you their email address, they are agreeing to receive emails from you
  • Only send them donor-centric emails – up until the point they signal interest in other types of content

Someone signed up via our website to become a volunteer. We asked for their email address and they gave it to us. Can we email them? Yes, but…

You should do two things:

  • On the sign-up form, explicitly state that by giving you their email address, they are agreeing to receive emails from you
  • Only send them volunteer-centric emails – up until the point they signal interest in other types of content

A non-donor/non-volunteer gave us their email address via a physical sign-up form at an event. Can we email them? Yes, but…

As stated above, you should clearly state on the form by giving you their email address, they are agreeing to receive emails from you. And be sure to only send them relevant emails.

A board member gave our development staff a business card of someone they thought might be interested in organization. Can we email them? Sort of.

You cannot (should not) add them to your bulk newsletter list. However, you could email them individually, explain how you received the business card, and attempt to create/nurture the relationship. Only after they officially opt-in or donate can you add them to a bulk list.

A donor responded to a direct mail appeal and included their email address (we did not have an email address for them prior). Can we email them? Yes, but…

Once again, you should clearly state on the form that by giving you their email address, they are agreeing to receive emails from you. Only send them donor-centric emails. If they donated, they would fall within the transactional relationship-type, and CAN-SPAM regulations would not apply. However, they could still choose to mark your emails as spam if they are not relevant or engaging.

We collected business cards in a fishbowl at an event (as part of a raffle). Can we email them? Yes, but…

You can expect a high unsubscribe rate and spam reports if you immediately add them to your bulk list and start sending generic newsletters. It would be better to email them individually first and gauge their true interest.

A similar/partner nonprofit offered to share their list with us. Can we email them? No.

Those subscribers opted-in to receive emails from the sharing organization, not yours. Because no opt-in occurred, the CAN-SPAM Act prohibits this.

We bought a list of email addresses. Can we email them? No.

Because no opt-in occurred, the CAN-SPAM Act prohibits this.

Our major gift officer pulled some email addresses of people who they might want to contact off of a corporate website. Can we email them? No, but…

You could email them individually. However, don’t expect a high success rate. Because no opt-in occurred, the CAN-SPAM Act prohibits adding these addresses to your bulk list.

We purchased an email append service. Can we email the updated addresses? Probably.

As long as you can verify that the email addresses belong to the subscriber for whom you previously had an email address for, via a legitimate opt-in, and that person has not unsubscribed.

Follow these scenario guidelines to keep yourself out of trouble, and more importantly, out of the spam folder.

What other scenarios have you run into where you were unsure what you could and couldn’t do? Let me know in the comments below?

Steven Shattuck

Steven Shattuck

Chief Engagement Officer at Bloomerang
Steven Shattuck is Chief Engagement Officer at Bloomerang. A prolific writer and speaker, Steven is a contributor to "Fundraising Principles and Practice: Second Edition" and volunteers his time on the Project Work Group of the Fundraising Effectiveness Project, is an AFP Center for Fundraising Innovation (CFI) committee member, and sits on the faculty of the Institute for Charitable Giving. He is the author of Robots Make Bad Fundraisers - How Nonprofits Can Maintain the Heart in the Digital Age, published by Bold and Bright Media.