The “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act,” or the CAN-SPAM Act, has been in place since January 2004, but many organizations still aren’t clear on what it means for them. While the law is in place to stop floods of emails from unsolicited evil doers, it can have an adverse effect on even small nonprofits’ email marketing efforts. Whether the law affects your organization or not, the regulations outlined in the CAN-SPAM act can act as a good guideline for making sure your emails look professional, and that you are being courteous to your subscribers.

When the government talks about spam, they don’t necessarily mean that stuff that ends up in your unwanted Gmail folder. The CAN-SPAM act is a set of rules that applies to any message that is primarily commercial. While most nonprofit emails are not commercial inherently, they can be in some situations. Involvement from a corporate funder can put your message in a grey area, as can using email to market products. For example, Idealware advertises our annual “Field Guide to Software for Nonprofits” and recordings of our training sessions through email. While fundraising appeals do not count as commercial content in the government’s eyes, there is no specific exemption from the law for nonprofits, so it’s a good idea to follow these rules just to be safe.

Make sure to let your recipients know who you are and how to reach you in every email. Provide a valid street or PO Box address in the body of your email, as well as a usable return email. Emails are informal, so don’t be afraid to get personal. A message from is a lot more likely to be viewed as spam than one from Along with that, be honest in your subject line and email body. Even if you’re just trying to be unique, a misleading subject to entice a reader to open the email can be illegal. If you are trying to sell a product or service in your email, or trying to help someone else sell something, you should include language to reflect that. Simply noting somewhere in the email that it is an offer or an advertisement is specific enough.

Finally, make sure that everyone who is on your email list wants to be there. It can be tempting to send emails out to a few people whom you know might be potential givers, but unless they have asked specifically to be on the email list, they shouldn’t be. It should also be clear how a recipient can opt-out of your emails. A direct link to unsubscribe is the most comprehensive method, but including language suggesting that recipients reply by email to unsubscribe can work for smaller list. A subscriber also shouldn’t have to pay anything, or offer any information other than their email address to unsubscribe. Offering a way for subscribers to opt in or out of specific types of emails from your organization can be a good compromise if your constituents’ inboxes are getting bogged down by content. In any case, the change must be made within 10 business days to comply with the law.

If you outsource your broadcast email to a marketing firm, you should make sure they are following the rules as well. They may be able to keep your email out of a spam folder, but they might unintentionally be breaking the law. If a case is filed, both your organization and the marketing firm can be fined, so it is in everyone’s best interest to check. Complaints regarding breaches of the CAN-SPAM Act should be directed to the Federal Trade Commission at You should also inform your email provider and the sender’s email provider, including a full copy of the email in question.

If you have serious concerns about your own emails conflicting with CAN-SPAM’s regulations, contact a lawyer who is familiar with email best practices. Other countries can have even stricter regulations regarding email, so if you conduct any international business, make sure you are complying with their laws as well. While it’s unlikely that a small organization could run into legal trouble, violations of the CAN-SPAM act can mean up to $16,000 in charges. A few simple measures to make certain you are in compliance can save you a lot of money, and keep your email etiquette in top shape.