I seem to find some new fundraising affront every time I check my email these days. A recent favorite? Constant requests to “renew” a membership that I never had, a tactic particularly prized by the Democratic and Republican national committees.
At least the parties occasionally leaven their email streams with other appeals. The Democrats regularly send longer overviews of national strategy and fundraising asks to support a renewed fifty-state strategy or redistricting reform, for instance. Unlike the membership “renewals,” those messages don’t insult my intelligence — or my memory.
The worst offenders don’t bother making a real case for my money or asking for consent at all. I only realized I was on the Stop Republicans PAC list, for example, when I started finding several of their messages a day in my spam filter. Until I decided to study their habits and marked them as an approved sender, I don’t think that a single one of their all-too-frequent missives had managed to actually make it to my inbox. Of course, I’d never signed up to receive them in the first place.
List-buying is an old practice, but it got a fresh kick from Facebook’s U.S. political ad ban. Cut off from lead generation ads, many campaigns and organizations decided to buy new donors in bulk. Sometimes they’ll send an introductory message asking if the recipient wants to hear from them, but more often the firehose simply turns itself on. Not surprisingly, many of these groups’ recent emails also ended up in my spam filter, not in front of my eyeballs.
Stop Republicans’ emails stand out for more than just delivery issues, since they’re the spammiest messages I can remember seeing in a long time. They usually include some cutesy sender name designed to catch the eye, combined in Mad Lib form with an often-nonsensical subject line. I am not making up these combos I received between March 13th-15th, though they read like parodies:
- crying so hard | Goodbye Colin Delany
- PRAYING for a MIRACLE | awful H.R. 1 update [we’re doomed]
- we’re shaking (true) | what Mitch McConnell just did to Joe Biden… [re: H.R. 1]
- TEMPER TANTRUM | Donald Trump CRIED when he read this!! [re: USPS]
These are just a selection from the seventeen messages Stop Republicans sent me over those three days — and remember, I never signed up for this list. Are these emails the result of A/B testing, or does this group put ideas in a blender and send whatever sludge oozes out?
The National Democratic Training Committee (NDTC), whose list I did join voluntarily a couple of years ago and whose mission I support, unfortunately just adopted similar practices. After not hearing from them, they recently and suddenly started sending similarly spammy messages more than once each day, again using gimmicky sender/subject line combos. One suspects that they and Stop Republicans might now have a vendor in common.
Besides spam-adjacent content and volume, other bad practices abound:
- Guilt-inducing subject lines (“Colin won’t take the survey??”)
- Unrealistic donor matches (somehow I doubt that a 10x match is legit)
- Continuing to send messages days after someone’s unsubscribed (including as long as five days later)
These tactics might raise a bundle of money in the short term, but bad-faith fundraising will eventually poison the well. If you’re sending me six messages a day with no election around the corner, I’m not likely to take your appeals seriously. A churn-and-burn approach requires a constant supply of new victims, willing or not, so of course I’m getting signed up for lists like these without my approval. Quotas must be met, and commissions must be earned.
Worst of all, these offenders aren’t scam PACs — they’re legitimate political organizations. Stop Republicans advertises to oppose Republican candidates and support Democratic ones. NDTC trains Democratic candidates. Unlike Donald Trump post-election, they’re not just creating a slush fund. Unlike the Lincoln Project founders, they don’t seem to be lining their own pockets. You shouldn’t have to be a bad fundraiser if you do good work.
Better alternatives? Take the time to build relationships with donors. Demonstrate the value of the work you do. Make specific asks for specific purposes. Cultivate donors for the long haul, not for this month’s fake deadline. Put in the time and energy to earn those donations. And don’t just ask me for money.
The best part about writing this article? Now that I don’t need to monitor them anymore, I can leave these lists. If they’ll let me.
Colin Delany is founder and editor of the award-winning website Epolitics.com, author of the new 2021 edition of “How to Use the Internet to Change the World – and Win Elections,” a twenty-five-year veteran of online politics and a perpetual skeptic. See something interesting? Send him a pitch at email@example.com.