Dont Mail The Dead

September 15, 2005       Don McNamara      

The donor puts the mail on the table, sorts it and finds a letter addressed to a loved one. The letter is a charitable solicitation, attractively presented and containing an appeal sure to arouse sympathy.

The donor holds up the letter, examines it for a while, then puts it down, looks off into the distance, unsure of just what to do.

The loved one whose name appears on the envelope is deceased. Further, that death did not occur yesterday. The loved one has been dead for a while, at least long enough for the nonprofit or its list company to have deleted that person’s name.

Despite the best efforts of fundraisers, names can slip through the cracks. Computer glitches, simple mistakes and oversights can cause even the most conscientious mailers to send an appeal to someone who should not be receiving an appeal, such as a dead person.

Concerned that organizations are sending mail solicitations to deceased people in numbers that rule out oversights or computer glitches, the Direct Marketing Association (DMA) has established a Deceased Do-Not-Contact List, or DDNC. The DDNC was created for the sole purpose of removing deceased individuals from commercial marketing lists.

“The DMA recognizes how emotionally and logistically difficult the process of handling someone’s final affairs can be,” said Pat Kachura, senior vice president, ethics and consumer affairs of the DMA. “Our goal with the creation of the list is to assist those who are managing this process.”

Kachura said the establishment of the list came in response to complaints — averaging a call a day in recent months — from consumers who had received mail solicitations addressed to a loved one who had died. “As you can imagine, this was emotional and painful for them,” Kachura said. The list was the result of several months of discussion by ethics committees within the DMA.

The National Easter Seal Society is one organization that makes a specific effort to remove deceased people from its mailing list as soon as it learns they have died.

“We don’t want to be mailing to someone who’s deceased, and we understand how painful that can be to family members and one’s loved ones,” said Christopher Cleghorn, senior vice president at Easter Seals and a DMA board member.

Cleghorn said the DDNC is a good idea and an appropriate move. “Certainly our own internal practices m andate that when we do learn that someone has passed away we code the name and no longer market to that name,” he said. Notification can come directly from a loved one or indirectly by way of postal notice.

One possible strategy in mailing to a donor with the knowledge that the person is dead is that the deceased donor’s survivor may want to carry on the work of a loved one.

Cleghorn said such a thing is possible, but he is not aware of any organizations using that chance as a fundraising strategy.

Geoffrey W. Peters, Pro Bono General Counsel to American Charities for Reasonable Fundraising Regulation in Vienna, Va., praised the effort of the DMA, but he expressed skepticism about its effectiveness.

“There’s no question that the goal of most mailers is to mail to people who are physically able to donate, that is, are not dead,” Peters said. “There also is no question that responsible mailers don’t want to bother or give offense to the family of someone who is deceased and would like to suppress mailing to people who are truly deceased. The problem is how do you do that?”

A large part of the difficulty, Peters said, is that a do-not-call list of dead people relies on someone other than the listed person to do the opting out. This can hurt reliability.

By way of illustrating the problem, Peters said that several years ago he inadvertently mailed a suppression list in the Netherlands. “I got a 6 percent response from supposedly dead people,” he said.

Peters suppressed the list after that because he realized that there were people on the list who were truly deceased and he didn’t want to offend their families. “But it suggests that the process of who’s saying someone is deceased gets difficult,” he added.

“I don’t blame the DMA for trying and I don’t have a good alternative, but I would caution them to be aware that just because the list says these people are deceased, that doesn’t mean it’s true.”

Peters cited an old newspaper joke about an obituary writer who gets a call from a guy he wrote an obit about, saying “Rumors of my death have been greatly exaggerated.”

“The DMA is trying to do the right thing, but it’s not easy to do the right thing in this case,” Peters concluded.

One source who spoke on background said the list poses a problem because the DMA is talking about one huge list that does not differentiate between charitable solicitation and for-profit solicitation. Although there has been a great hue and cry on the part of consumers who do not want to be bothered by mail or telephone pitches, closer scrutiny shows that consumers are actually angered by for-profit appeals and not by philanthropic ones, this source noted. The sheer size of the list then makes it a problem.

Another source said she knew of several instances where mailing the so-called dead file received a greater response rate than an acquisition mailing but that the organization has stopped mailing the file. Such a mailing is only good one time, with the possibility of capturing the name of the person responding in place of the deceased.

The way the list will work is that the survivors of deceased individuals can log on to and provide the name, address, telephone number and email address of the deceased. That name will go to a special do-not-contact file. There will be a $1 credit card verification fee for each consumer registered.

Kuchara said that 120 people registered a loved one on the first day of the list. The only complaints received by the DMA so far have come from a few people questioning the fee.

“We felt we had to have a verifiable record,” Kuchara said of the charge. “We want to make sure people are doing this responsibly and not registering someone as a joke.”

The list will be made available to all members of the DMA as well as to nonmember companies wishing to consult the list.

Kuchara said the DMA will be monitoring the results and making any adjustments that may be found necessary.