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Must church-based organizations comply with the CAN-SPAM law?

By Poonam Patodia

SUMMARY: If you toss and turn at night worrying about a call from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) regarding your most recent e-mail campaign, stop worrying. In the broad scheme of things, church-based organizations are small potatoes.

So why worry about compliance with the 2003 CAN-SPAM law? Because there’s really a far more critical reason to comply—and in fact, to ensure that you work to conduct clean, responsible, permission-based e-mail campaigns: the ongoing trust of your constituents and your reputation with current and potential members.

The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act (CAN-SPAM) law of 2003 was enacted to reduce the amount of spam (unsolicited commercial e-mails) for consumers. So does CAN-SPAM apply to faith-based organizations? Yes and no, depending on how you get the e-mail lists.

Unsolicited commercial e-mail -- "UCE" or "spam" in the online vernacular -- is any commercial electronic-mail message sent, often in bulk, to a consumer without the consumer's prior request or consent (consent being of primary importance here). So if you use a completely homegrown e-mail list with your constituents’ clear permission to send them e-mails, CAN-SPAM may not apply to you. If, however, you have doubts on the “consent” part, it’s best to comply. In either case, your constituents definitely will appreciate your usage of best practices.

Technically speaking, sending unsolicited commercial e-mails is legal in most cases. You simply must comply with the following regulations:

  • Use a valid header. Specifically, make sure the "from" line accurately and clearly reflects your church/organization. Something like "programs@yourchurch.org" or "memberservices@yourchurch.org" could identify your church/organization. To current and potential members, this provides a comfort level because they know they can trust the sender.

    • CAN-SPAM also addresses fraudulent Internet Protocol (I.P.) addresses by the sender, but that should not be an issue for church organizations and will not be discussed here in greater detail.
  • Use a clear subject line. Currently no labeling requirements exist for the subject line ("ADV" for advertisement, for example). The subject line must not mislead recipients as to the content of the message. For example, if you promote a bake sale in the e-mail, do not use a subject line that says, “Hello from a Friend.”

  • Provide a functioning opt-out in every commercial/bulk e-mail. This can be a return e-mail address or other Internet-based mechanism capable of receiving opt-out requests for at least 30 days after the transmission of the original message. The keys here are that the mechanism must be Internet-based and it must function.

  • On May 12, 2008, the FTC made this requirement more stringent by asking senders to provide recipients with an easy, unburdened way to unsubscribe from a commercial e-mail. This includes not asking for payment or information beyond the e-mail address, making any other obligation as a condition for honoring the “unsub” request or requiring the recipient to visit more than a single Web page.

  • Ensure all opt-out requests are honored within 10 business days of receipt.

  • If the recipient has opted-out, you may not rent, exchange, or otherwise transfer or release the e-mail address of the recipient.

  • The FTC, on May 12, 2008, defined a "valid physical postal address" as "the sender's current street address, a Post Office box the sender has accurately registered with the United States Postal Service, or a private mailbox the sender has accurately registered with a commercial mail receiving agency that is established pursuant to United States Postal Service regulations."

  • If, however, you have an in-house list, or rent a list of individuals who opted-in to receive commercial e-mail offers, you are exempt from the requirements that would otherwise force the use of such words as "advertisement" or "solicitation" to label the message. The rest of the rules, however, apply.

  • Provide a valid physical postal address. If you haven’t already done so, this should be the easiest addition to all of your e-mails.

  • Make it clear, if it is an ad. If you send an offer to individuals who have not opted-in to receive commercial/bulk e-mail offers, you must make it clear that the message is a promotion, advertisement or offer. This can be accomplished either in the subject line or in the body of the e-mail. For example, if you promote a yard sale to area neighborhoods with an e-mail list you got from local homeowners associations, add a line to your e-mail footer that reads something like “this is a solicitation to support a yard sale.”

  • Do not harvest e-mail addresses off the Internet. Again, because I do not expect faith-based organizations to indulge in these practices, I will not discuss this in detail. But for the sake of covering the topic, organizations should not use automatic tools to harvest e-mails from Internet or chat rooms.

  • Finally, the most recent additions to the law have a clause on co-branded marketing efforts. The law identifies a “sole sender” depending upon the header and the physical postal address in the e-mail, along with a few other criteria. If you engage in co-branded e-mails and are not the sole sender, read the e-mail carefully to ensure the named sender satisfies all legal requirements.

The CAN-SPAM Act lays the foundation for a clear differentiation of "spammers" from permission-based e-mail marketers. Most churches and church-based organizations, I think, need not be overly concerned about attention from the FTC. But incorporating these “must dos” in your e-mails will make you compliant with CAN-SPAM, strengthen your relationships with your members and present a trustworthy image of your church. You won’t alienate current and potential members. After all, it’s not the government you must worry about. It’s your constituents.