Anti-spammers hobble Oxfam's Kosovo email campaign

A plan to use email for fund raising to help Kosovo's refugees has been stymied by furious anti-spam campaigners.

Britain's largest foreign aid charity, Oxfam, had planned to experiment with direct email canvassing for the first time, using 10,000 email addresses from users of British Telecom's Talk21, a free email service, and Auto Trader magazine's Web sites, alongside a banner-ad campaign.

Nonetheless, when a report on Excite's UK news service said Oxfam was considering "spam in a good cause," the news quickly circulated around several anti-spam mailing lists and the news.admin.net-abuse.email newsgroup. The anti-spammers were not charitably disposed toward Oxfam's idea. "Oxfam could go around robbing banks to support their relief effort, too, but that doesn't mean we should stand back and let them," said Julian Haight, creator of the Spamcop Web site. "I recently received a request from a Mexican elementary school asking for donations for a computer lab -- again, a very good cause, but still spam -- and I reported it to the ISP."

Haight added: "Oxfam should prepare for a PR black eye if it pursues this course. They may garner some donations, but the vast majority of the recipients will simply delete the mail -- but also file Oxfam in a category with pornographers, scam artists and other sleaze."

Among the activists who contacted Oxfam through its Web site was Steve Harris, who wrote the "Spamicide" program. He said a woman he contacted on the site had not heard of the email campaign and was "horrified." A few hours later, a statement appeared on Oxfam's site announcing that, "after consideration, Oxfam GB decided not to pursue this option."

Matthew Eccles, managing director of WWAV Rapp Collins, the direct marketing group that worked on the campaign, was disillusioned by the reaction from the anti-spammers. "What has happened is an absolute tragedy -- not just for Oxfam but the people of Kosovo," he said. Eccles declined to say how much money Oxfam thought it might have raised via the email campaign. He noted that the banner ad campaign on BT, Auto Trader and UK Web sites began only Tuesday, and no figures were in on how well it had done. The sites posting banner ads did so free of charge.

"When you come down to it," he said, "the problem arose because of references to spamming, which was not what we wanted to do. What we were doing was contacting people who said they are happy to receive third-party emails." In fact, in both cases, users who submitted their email addresses in order to receive services would automatically be eligible to receive email from third parties unless they selected otherwise. "I would have no qualms about suggesting such a campaign again to any fund-raising client in future," Eccles added.

In the end, the campaign has gone ahead, but without the email component.

Julian Haight is relieved -- "I'm just glad they decided against it -- it restores my faith in Oxfam. I always thought of them as one of the good guys."

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