Open Letter to the University of Chicago Development Office

Dear University of Chicago Development Office:

I’m going to make this simple for you: For every single piece of spam e-mail I receive from you exhorting me to give money to the University of Chicago, I intend to cut 25% off the original amount of money I intended to donate to you for the year. So far — in the last couple of weeks — I’ve received two e-mails from you, so congratulations, you’ve already halved my intended contribution. Two more and you lose it all, and then I’ll have to decide whether to count any additional spam from you this year against my intended contribution for next year, and the year after and so on. If I do this, given your current rate of spammage, I may be in the clear for contributions through 2010 at the earliest.

Why do this? Two reasons. First, I get enough unwanted crap in my e-mail box without additional unwanted crap from you. Second, begging for money through unsolicited e-mail implicitly places you on the same level as the people who are trying to scam my credit card numbers, or trying to tempt me place a bet with their offshore casino, or trying to beguile me with pictures of barnyard fornication — just the sort of crowd I’m sure you want to be associated with. You’re better than that, and with an endowment of $3.62 billion, you can sure as hell afford a goddamn stamp.

Yes, I’m aware that you have provided me with a way to opt out of future money-begging e-mails, but you know what? I shouldn’t have to ask you not to clog my inbox with e-mail I don’t want. You’re the University of Chicago. You should already know that spamming alumni is a venal sin. And I have no assurance that once I opt out, some jackass in the future won’t just put me on the spam list again.

So instead, I place the burden on you, and put it to you in a way I’m sure will get your attention: Take me off your damn money-begging e-mail list and keep me off it, or you won’t see any money from me. Because you’re annoying me, and why would I give money to someone who is annoying me? I’ll just give it to my high school, or maybe to my wife’s college. They don’t spam me.

It’s up to you. You’ve already lost half of what I planned to send you this year because of your spammage. It’s all the same to me if you lose the other half. If there’s one thing I learned at the University of Chicago, it’s not to reward people who just won’t learn.

Update, 5pm 6/22: How very nice — an e-mailed apology from the U of C Development folks and assurance I’m removed from the fundraiser e-mail list. Griping works! And I’m pleased enough by the gracious response that I’m back to making a full contribution to the school for the year. Would that all e-mail issues were so quickly resolved.

35 thoughts on “Open Letter to the University of Chicago Development Office

  1. Shouldn’t you give them the OPPORTUNITY to learn by opting out? As someone who works in development (albeit at a regional arts organization), I send stuff to anyone I can because some of them are interested. However, as soon as someone asks to be removed from the list, they’re off the list – which I would define as us learning.

  2. I’m behind you 1000%, but why is paper spam okay when email spam isn’t? I happen to agree with you on that too, but I’m not sure why – curious if you have any theories.

  3. Hey, at least they’re not calling you every month. My university (NIU) calls regardless if I tell them not to. I made the mistake of giving them like $25 once, and it’s the last time I ever do. Who knew that for a paltry fee of just twenty-five dollars I could have the same very art department that allowed me to graduate with a degree in what might as well have been the artistic form of sandscrit (sandscript?) call me and ask me to give them more money so they could do the same to future students? What a bargain! (And run-on sentence).

  4. Allison:

    “Shouldn’t you give them the OPPORTUNITY to learn by opting out?”

    No. The U of C should know better than to spam people, and it’s not as if they don’t already have a highly-developed, well-oiled machine designed specifically for the purpose of sucking money from alumni. Also, why should I have to do the work? Screw ‘em.

    Bear in mind that this would be my standard response to anyone spamming my e-mail looking for donations. The U of C just happens to be the first. Anyway, U of C will have the opportunity to learn when they no longer get my money. If they then correct the behavior, I’ll most likely resume contributions.

    Ted Lemon:

    “Why is paper spam okay when email spam isn’t?”

    1. Because my regular mail box isn’t flooded with 500 spam messages daily, of which this is just one more.

    2. Because the real mail costs real money to send, which implies (but does not guarantee) some thought went into its content. Any idiot can gin up an e-mail distribution list, whomp up some lame-ass ad and press a button to start the spam mill at ever-more-frequent intervals. I don’t begrudge the U of C the neccessity of asking for money, but I want to have at least minimal assurance it’s doing it as effectively as possible, and the cost and effort involved limit the begging as few times as feasable a year. Less is more.

  5. John:
    2. Because the real mail costs real money to send, which implies (but does not guarantee) some thought went into its content. Any idiot can gin up an e-mail distribution list, whomp up some lame-ass ad and press a button to start the spam mill at ever-more-frequent intervals.

    Agreed 110%. That’s why I say find a way to charge the spammers too!

  6. Good luck charging the spammers. They’ve already virtually destroyed the idea of email as it was before spam – a way that anybody could reach you if they needed to. If you can figure out a way to charge them, they’ll figure out a way to make someone else pay.

    BTW, there is a small difference between University of Chicago and the average spammer: you probably gave UofC your email address. So they aren’t contacting you completely uninvited. Which is not to excuse their behavior, but the usual definition of spam is that it comes from someone with whom you share no relationship at all – it’s literally shotgun mail.

    Have you read any of Ken McLeod’s books? He makes a case in Stone Canal and The Cassini Division for the idea that the only way to get rid of spam is to get rid of commerce as a means of survival – as long as people are depending on commerce for survival, there will always be some asshole/poor bastard who can’t make a proper living, and resorts to some form of obnoxious begging to get your help. He doesn’t come down on either side of the issue, but it’s interesting to see the play between two cultures one of which follows the better living through commerce method, and one of which does not.

  7. I don’t know how U of C does it, Allison, but my own alma mater keeps one mailing list for alumni and one mailing list each for each class of alumni. So if I want to hear, for example, that one of my old lab instructors died and is having a memorial service next week (got that one yesterday) or that the class of ’99 is meeting for drinks downtown on Friday (last month), I also have to get the “send us money now!” e-mails.

  8. You know, it’s just like a UofC graduate to let you know, early and often, where they went to school. I swear, you guys are worse than those Harvard assholes.

    Did you meet Saul Bellow when you were there? Did you hang with any Nobel laureates? I hear they’re so thick around that joint they wear signs: Will reveal details of my banquet in Stockholm for food.

    This was not a problem at Ohio University. And they hardly ever ask me for money.

  9. “Did you meet Saul Bellow when you were there?”

    In fact, Nance, Saul Bellow was my thesis advisor, until I became ombudsman for the university, and did something less rigorous for my thesis. So, yeah, you could say I’ve met Saul Bellow. And knew at least a couple of other Nobel laureates, though not with any great intimacy.

    I don’t think I bring up my UofC connection all that frequently, just when relevant. And of course, bagging on the UofC’s spam-laden money-grubbing ways isn’t exactly a positive endorsement of the place, now, is it.

  10. Did you read any great books? You forgot to mention that.

    Actually, if my kid could get into U of C, I’d be pleased as punch. On the continuum of Ivy-to-cosmetology school, it’s definitely way over to the left. But it was so far from my possibilities that I was nearly 30 before I realized what most people call the U of C wasn’t the University of Cincinnati.

  11. I totally agree with you that the fundraisers for U of C ought to be smart enough to figure out that their alumni don’t want spam.

    I have a friend who did database programming for the Development office at our college. Since then, I’ve been deeply unsympathetic to any charity that can’t figure out that I don’t want them to call me, or to send me mail begging for more money more than once or twice a year. Not only can they code records as “do not phone solicit,” they can code them with “do not student solicit” if you don’t want to be called by students, and can opt you out of every single regular mailing, from the alumni magazine to the report on giving (those are paper mailings). I’m sure your alumni organization will code it as such if you opt out of spam, but I agree with you — you shouldn’t have to opt out of this garbage.

    If they’re smart, they will find this, and a real human being will send you a polite apology. If they’re really smart, they’ll stop spamming everyone. Let us know what happens, okay?

  12. You say that you wouldn’t mind if they sent you a letter, presumably one you could then throw away unopened because you already know what they’re after. So you would prefer they waste money to ask for money?

    I would suggest to them a different approach – create an email newsletter (or change the one they most likely already have) that includes a short message and a link to a donation page.

    Would you be more amenable to the begging if it were in this format (assuming you would still be allowed to ‘opt-out’ whenever you felt like)?

  13. John H:

    “So you would prefer they waste money to ask for money?”

    You’re presuming I throw out fund-raising appeals, and I’m not exactly sure why you would presume that. As I do have plans to contribute money to the U of C this year, this would seem to indicate that I am, in fact, receptive to their appeals. Therefore, in my case, it’s not a waste of money. However, the presumably low-cost option of spamming my e-mail box ends up costing them money, since it annoys me enough that I’ll withhold a portion of my intended contribution to them. The math here is pretty simple.

  14. Question: Just curious, but did you actively send this missive to anyone at the University likely to see it, either by e-mail or regular mail? I mean, I would assume so, since just posting it on your website for the delectation of your readers (which group may or may not include U of C alumni contribution gurus–odds are against it, I’d think) would seem to rob your broadside of a good deal of its putative effect.

  15. “You’re presuming I throw out fund-raising appeals, and I’m not exactly sure why you would presume that.”

    Not at all. I’m just saying snail-mail costs more than email. To me it’s a waste since an email gets to the recipient much faster at a lower cost.

    I share your frustration with spam, but I think you are taking it out on the wrong people. Probably because you can take it out on them (as opposed to the real spammers out there).

    You intend to withhold money you would have donated as a protest to their methods of asking for said donations – that is certainly your right. But if your goal is to eliminate the ‘spam’ they’re sending you, I don’t think it will make any difference.

    Have you suggested to them any better ways to solicit donations without alienating their alumni?

  16. John H:

    “To me it’s a waste since an email gets to the recipient much faster at a lower cost.”

    Right, and that’s why they’re doing it. However, it’s not a waste because I react in a hostile manner to unsolicited e-mail asking me for money. Also, given the volume of spam I get, it’s not terribly efficient for them to have to compete with hundreds of other spam I get. Additionally, the low cost of spamming does them little good if the result is that they automatically get shunted into my spam filter, as they do now.

    Paying the certain amount of postage, on the other hand, makes sure the message arrives in a form that doesn’t piss me off, doesn’t compete with hundreds of other messages, and is not automatically shunted into the crap pile. In other words, it costs more, but it’s worth it. Whereas spamming me is stupid and pound-foolish, since it pisses me off enough to make me do the opposite of what they’d like me to do.

    Therefore, you can see which of these I think is the “waste” and which is not.

    “I think you are taking it out on the wrong people.”

    No. I’m taking it out on the right people. Unlike most spammers, who have no chance of getting my money anyway, the U of C has an excellent chance of getting my money, so long as they don’t piss me off with stupid crap like this. There is a real economic detriment to them to acting stupidly, and being the U of C, there is empirical evidence they can be taught. Preferably they would stop all their spammage, but if the result is simply that they stop spamming me I can live with that as well. If they don’t stop spamming me, they won’t get a contribution from me. Simple.

    “Have you suggested to them any better ways to solicit donations without alienating their alumni?”

    What do you think this is? Otherwise it’s not my responsibility to do their job for them. I’m letting them know they’re pissing my off with their penny-ante spamming scheme. That’s all I feel I need to do.

  17. Amen brother. I just wish I’d thought of this solution to the spam problem.

    And, I also hung out with MANY Nobel Laureates while at UofC. So stick that in the jealousy pipe and smoke it. :)

  18. “Anyway, U of C will have the opportunity to learn when they no longer get my money. If they then correct the behavior, I’ll most likely resume contributions.”

    I’d say that by sending them this letter, you HAVE informed them and they now have the opportunity to learn. Which is important. As a fundraiser, I appreciate getting feedback from our constituency and having the ability to respond to concerns and critiques. Granted, I come from a slightly different perspective as my organization does not have an endowment of eleventy bazillion dollars, nor do we currently do email soliciation but instead rely more on telefundraising and direct mail. However, we may start to include email solicitation at some point, so good to hear this perspective.

    On a personal note, I know that I don’t look at email solicitations that I receive any differently than I do direct mail pieces, except that I support organizations’ efforts to lower their costs and save a few trees. But obviously not everyone feels the same as I do. Just keep in mind (or don’t, no real reason you have to) that perhaps the Chicago development office hasn’t heard your perspective before and will hopefully now keep it in mind for your personal solicitations in the future.

  19. Heh, I just sent them a nasty email this morning because they sent only HTML mail AND the reply-to was empty. Whatta buncha maroons.

  20. At least the spam’s actually addressed to you.

    My dad got his master’s degree five years ago, and ever since, I’ve been getting spam addressed to him asking for donations.

  21. Nitpick – if you’re reducing the amount you were planning on giving by 25% each time, technically you will never reach zero. You’re always taking a percent off what was left. Like if you were going to give $100 but got a spam, you’d be down to $75. You get another spam, take 25% off the $75, meaning you’d give $56.25, and so on.

  22. That’s why I said I would knock off 25% of the original amount I planned to give each time, not 25% of the remaining amount.

  23. Some people are annoyed by mail solicitation, some by email solicitation, some by phone solicitation. Some by all three or by some combination thereof. And likewise some prefer each of those kinds of solicitation. You’re acting as if they should have read your mind and known you are one of the ones who hate email solicitation.

    Now, if they’d done this once and you asked to not be contacted this way, that’s a whole different ball game. But as it is, unless you’re telling me that everyone would prefer mail to email in this case, you’re asking them to read your mind. And that is unreasonable.

  24. Well, since I told them that it annoys me, I don’t see how that equates to reading minds. Also, I think unsolicited e-mailed appeals for money are generally classifiable as spam, and any serious institution should know better than to spam. I shouldn’t have to tell the U of C, even once, not to be spammers. That’s not unreasonable in the slightest.

  25. Ian,The important distinction between spam and direct mail or telemarketing is that while they may be annoying, at least the sender pays.Spam is fundamentally different in that sending a million copies of a message costs the sender virtually nothing, but in the aggregate, those million recipients pay a significant amount (in the form of paying for more bandwidth/servers for their ISP, as well as — of course — anti-spam products and services).This is not a case of logically equivalent delivery methods which individuals have quirky preferences for. I should not have to pay for the privelege of being hit up for cash.

  26. Unless I’m missing something in the post, John (which is possible), you’re telling them at the same time you’re punishing them. If you were saying after the first one “don’t do this again or” that’d be one thing, but the post makes it sound like after you’ve recieved two emails you’re now saying to them “oops, there’s 50% gone”, which means you haven’t given them the opportunity to stop.

    But yes, that doesn’t have much to do with your other point: “Also, I think unsolicited e-mailed appeals for money are generally classifiable as spam”. Well, not always. I wouldn’t classify one of those from my alma mater as spam, and you (and probably many more) would. That’s fine. But what about the people who say “I think unsolicited mailed appeals for money are generally classifiable as junk mail” and/or “I think unsolicited phoned appeals for money are generally classifiable as harrassment”? Should higher education just stop soliciting people (and again, a surprisingly large percentage of the alumni I’ve dealt with have expressed a preference for email) because it will always piss off _somebody_? I’d love for it to be able to, but it clearly can’t right now.

    Which brings us to Justin’s point: “This is not a case of logically equivalent delivery methods which individuals have quirky preferences for.”

    Well, I have two problems with this:

    1. I don’t know what it’s like in the States, but up here I pay a flat fee for my internet every month whether I get 5,000 spam emails or 5. Nobody I know “pays” for spam in that way, and there is more than enough free anti-spam software out there that unless you break out in hives at the thought of emptying your own “junk mail” folder or equivalent it shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve got a ridiculously old Hotmail account, fer chrissakes, and I get maybe ten pieces a day. Big deal.

    2. This still completely avoids the question of alumni who _prefer email_. How is their preference any less valid than yours?

  27. “This still completely avoids the question of alumni who _prefer email_. How is their preference any less valid than yours?”

    What on earth makes you think I would possibly care if other people want to receive spam? Lots of people want stupid things for unfathomable reasons, but that doesn’t mean I should suffer for it. Unsolicited appeals for money qualify under my definition of “spam.” I don’t need a quorum to hold that opinion. My way to enforce not getting spam is to withold money until I got my way. Which indeed I got, in less than a day. If you want to think that’s unreasonable, that’s fine with me. I am not receiving spam from the U of C anymore. I win.

  28. “This still completely avoids the question of alumni who _prefer email_. How is their preference any less valid than yours?”

    It’s a perfectly easy point to address, those alumni can ASK to get e-mail. Any and all mailing lists, be they for donations or otherwise need to be OPT-IN, that means you ASK to get put on em rather than get spammed to bejesus THEN get told “oh gee, you didn’t want to get all this crap? Unsubscribe then, and no we don’t give enough of a rat’s ass about you to have asked AHEAD of time.”

    Here is the rule, and unlike many rules this one IS written in stone in the real world. There is NO individual or organization ANYWHERE in this world that is authorized to mail me without prior arrangements being made unless said mailings is intended to make PERSONAL CONTACT. You want to write and say Hi? GO FOR IT. You want to get money out of me and I didn’t ask you to let me know by e-mail? Go [bleep] a duck, end of discussion.

    Now granted (fending off the nitpickers I am :P) ‘Prior arrangements’ can be as simple as me posting my e-mail address on my website, but keep in mind that at that stage contact should be limited to the INTENDED PURPOSE for which the address has been published. This is to say for instance that just because I have a ‘webamster@’ address on each and every site I run, all going to my personal mailbox at the end of the day, does NOT mean I’ve made an open invitation to every arsehole who wants to throw his junk at me, those addresses are intended for reporting issues with the sites in question and that is the ONLY unexpected mailings I’ll consider acceptable on them.

    Yes, maybe it IS conceivably possible that some extraordinary circumstances could override this, but they’d be so extraordinary I have difficulty imagining an acceptable scenario where I’d find an unsolicited mailing to not be objectionable.

    Frankly John’s being pretty gentle about this all. By way of several very bad experiences, wherein neither pleas nor threats made an iota of difference to certain people’s mailing habits (yes, I knew who they were and had an association to them) I’ve given up on giving chances. Spam me and I won’t take into account who you might be or how well I know you, you’re blacklisted, I’ll further ORDER you to cease and decist mailing me, and if possible will enact the Data Protection Act to have ALL records of my existence removed from your databases (yes, I’d go so far as to ask my own school to forget I ever graduated from them if it became necessary, not that it ever would, they have far more sense than to ever spam anyone), and if you were a friend, you ain’t anymore (my friends, however, also know better and generally feel the same way :P.) It’s a deadly sin as far as I’m concerned.

  29. Ian sez:I don’t know what it’s like in the States, but up here I pay a flat fee for my internet every month whether I get 5,000 spam emails or 5. Nobody I know “pays” for spam in that way, and there is more than enough free anti-spam software out there that unless you break out in hives at the thought of emptying your own “junk mail” folder or equivalent it shouldn’t be a problem. I’ve got a ridiculously old Hotmail account, fer chrissakes, and I get maybe ten pieces a day. Big deal.You’re paying for it, you just don’t seem to realize it. The bandwidth that spam travels through and the servers that process it have to be paid for. Just because the cost is rolled up in your monthly fee and you never see a line item reading “Spam Cost” doesn’t mean you’re not paying for it.Even free services like Hotmail are being paid for by somebody, even if it’s not you. Microsoft is not running Hotmail as a charity, it’s an ongoing business expense and Microsoft’s customers are footing the bill in some form.Basically it’s the Tragedy of the Commons — those who abuse the system are most rewarded. Unfortunately, due to the nature of data transmission on the Internet, we’d need to overhaul the entire system to implement a true “sender pays” scheme where I am responsible for all the bandwidth and server time I use.I should note that my feelings were pretty similar to yours back when I only got 10 spams a day. I now get over 300 a day. I’ve essentially stopped using my personal email address for anything but getting mail that I know is coming, because no combination of anti-spam software I’ve tried yet makes enough of a dent in the pile.This still completely avoids the question of alumni who _prefer email_. How is their preference any less valid than yours?Their preference is less valid because it costs me money when the assumption is made that their preference is universal. Sending postal mail only costs the sender money. I’ve certainly got no problem with an opt-in list for people who prefer email solicitations.

  30. If you don’t mind I’d like to quote you in a presentation I’m making at the University of Toronto. My department is trying to convince the various faculties NOT to send lots of donation appeals via email because it irritates alumni and then they cut off communication.

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