Britain's largest foreign aid charity, Oxfam, had planned to experiment with direct e-mail canvassing for the first time, using 10,000 e-mail addresses from users of British Telecom's Talk21, a free e-mail 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.e-mail 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."
Added Haight: "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."
Complaining to Oxfam
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 e-mail 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 quite upset at the reaction of 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 e-mail 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.
Aversion to spamming
"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 e-mails."
In fact, in both cases, users who submitted their e-mail addresses in order to receive services would automatically be eligible to receive e-mail 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 e-mail 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."