What's going on with all the political fundraising spam?

Will Easton is an expert email strategist and nonprofit fundraiser, and the webmaster of ethicalemail.org. He was recently laid off and looking for work, so feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn or by email to weaston@igc.org.

Today's topic? The deluge of fundraising spam you're likely to receive after making a political contribution and handing over your email address.

First, let me make it clear that I've managed email communities for generally progressive nonprofits, B2C companies & candidates throughout my career, so my focus here is on that side of the aisle. Republican email fundraising is a separate kettle of fish with its own problems, highlighted in this piece from the NY Times focusing on the Trump campaign ... as well as a followup article pointing out that elderly donors to both parties are particularly susceptible to unethical tactics, and represent a disproportionate share of refunds requested for donations they don't believe they assented to give.

Political campaigns, of course, are not subject to the restrictions of the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003. The Princeton Corpus of Political Emails project conducted a groundbreaking two-year project from 2019 to 2021, and found that un-permissioned list sharing and manipulative tactics were widespread across the political email industry, and that only a small minority of senders published a privacy policy.

The slash-and-burn, email-any-address-we-can-get-ahold of tactics ... as well as the deceptive, sky-is-falling, guilt-tripping messaging ... seem to have really gotten started around 2017 or so, with candidates and digital consulting firms increasingly willing to break the unwritten rule of "don't email people who never signed up to hear from you." In the years since, it's only gotten worse, in a race to the bottom that evokes the tragedy of the commons parable. 

In the traditional B2C email marketing world, most reputable companies wouldn't dream of buying a list and spamming it - not only because of the legal exposure under CAN-SPAM, but also because of the risks to domain & IP reputation with mailbox providers, as well as the overall risk for damaging their brand. Why are political candidates any different?

It's now standard policy from the principal party committees (on the Democratic side, at least) that any candidate seeking their endorsement is expected to upload their email list of supporters into a "swap" exchange site ... and the unpermissioned emails flow with increasing speed from there. 

This past election season, literally every one of my friends & colleagues who made even the smallest of donations was deluged with fundraising spam from candidates they'd never even heard of, to the point where most are furious and saying "I will NOT donate to any candidate via any online mechanism ever again."

Have Democrats finally burned down the village this year in order to “save” it? I believe they have. When you think about it ... as a donor, are you willingly going to put your email address back into a system that says "thanks" for your donation ... by sending you hundreds more messages asking for money? Messages that crowd your inbox SO fast and furious -- eight to ten times a day, from multiple candidates -- that you miss important stuff from your mom or your doctor? Yeah, me neither.

And while I don't have any direct evidence for it, I've got to think this email ecosystem pollution is ALSO doing great harm to nonprofits who fundraise via email. Even if an organization DOES respect their subscribers' privacy and has great programs that deserve support, their appeals are simply getting lost in that deluge.

Is there a better way? Yes! I’d suggest a permission- and geography-based system, under which party committees and PACs -- if and only if I’m subscribed -- could email me about candidates running in my county or state, explain who they are and what they stand for, and invite me to subscribe to, volunteer with, or donate to that candidate. In the long term this would deepen engagement between candidates and their local supporters, and build sustainable and permission-based email relationships. I DON’T want to be treated like an ATM machine for candidates across the country who spam me out of the blue, and won’t support any candidate who doesn't respect the privacy of my email address.



  1. Point of data in support of the effects this is having on nonprofits engaged in progressive advocacy ... the email I got from MoveOn.org yesterday evening. (MoveOn is one of the biggest "flagship" grassroots organizations out there.)

    "...But over the last year, we have seen a dramatic drop in our grassroots fundraising. It's been particularly surprising that this happened during an election year, as election years historically have been times of increased energy and giving.

    And it's not just us—donations to progressive organizations have been on the decline across the board. ..."

    Hmmm, in an election year when overall energy was really high. I wonder what might've caused that?


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