The communications business is, first and foremost, about getting the message to the recipient. It doesn’t matter how compelling your nonprofit story is if you’re caught in a spam filter. Your chance to recruit a volunteer or ask for a donation won’t ever see the light of day.

Most e-mail recipients are using some kind of spam-filtering technology, which is either provided directly by their e-mail host or via some kind of plug-in for their local computers. The overall amount of spam being sent has declined just slightly in the third quarter of 2012, to an average of approximately 87 billion such messages—every day. Of course nonprofits don’t want their messages caught in that mess, but most of us don’t do a great job of testing our content—especially subject lines—to be sure we’re not just asking to be locked in a filter and never seen again.

Enthusiasm is, most often, a good thing, but it can hinder the ability of a machine to know if you are friend or foe. One of the first things a spam filter will look for is the use of an exclamation point, and a nonprofit is often so excited about its mission that it will use those marks in subject lines without thinking twice. Perhaps your organization is trying to reach clients to inform them they are eligible for services? The word “congratulations” will almost always send a message to the trash heap. Any nonprofit dealing with health care will certainly be at risk just by mentioning any common language of their industry, as pharmacy-themed spam is still the most popular type out there. So what is the well intended nonprofit to do?

First, a little education: be aware that, regardless of the jargon you use in your nonprofit, certain words are risky and can increase the chance of hitting a filter. Ask everyone in your organization to review some of the top spam trigger words, find likely candidates that may put you at risk, and agree to alternatives for use in e-mail. The word “affordable” is a spam trigger, so if you work in the field of affordable housing, you may want to find ways around that word in e-mail messages. Does your nonprofit provide free transportation services? Be careful about using the word “free” in any e-mail; perhaps you might offer “services without charge” instead.

Next, test any bulk messages going out. There are subject-line testing services that will help you avoid problems such as punctuation that triggers spam blockers; for instance, you should never use a dollar sign in any e-mail subject. You may not want to test every individual message going out, but at least for the big, important send-outs, it may be worth the extra step.

Lastly, consider the possibility that your whole domain could have been “blacklisted” as a spam site. If so, all of the e-mail from that domain is being trashed regardless of your careful choice of words and punctuation. Check to see if you are blacklisted, and if you’re on the list, contact that list administrator to see about getting your domain cleared. (Pro tip: remember to send mail from your own domain. E-mail coming from @yahoo or @hotmail is even more likely to be identified as spam).

No method will ever be perfect, but an ounce of prevention—which may entail avoiding some of our own nonprofit buzzwords—can be worth a pound of cure.


Steve Boland lives at the intersection of community, policy and technology. Steve holds a Master of Nonprofit Management from Hamline University, and is a regular contributor to Nonprofit Quarterly. He can be reached at [email protected] or