I recently received an email request purporting to come from the president of the alumni association of a large private university. It asked me to call the vendor who was preparing a new alumni directory so that I could verify my information. What a scam!

  • The email did not come from the president of the alumni association, even though his signature had been scanned and pasted at the bottom. It came from a generic address at the vendor publishing the directory. This true sent-from address was hidden behind a false sent-from that identified the sender as the ” _____ University Office of Alumni Relations.” Of course all you had to do to see this was to hover your cursor over the identified sent-from or try to reply.
  • If the vendor had truly wanted to simply verify my information, it would have done so by using a linked form that did not require me to make a phone call. The phone call process was neither user friendly nor user respectful. My time is valuable. By getting me to initiate a phone call, the vendor was setting itself up to make a sales call without worry about violating do-not-call rules. Shame on you vendor, and SHAME on you university for taking part in this scam.

I have no doubt that getting me to initiate a call that could be used to sell me a directory was the true purpose of the email. But even if I’m wrong, the damage has still been done by the inept process the vendor used. In this instance, what I believe is what counts, and that belief is a result of the university’s actions. The damage to relationship–that most important of commodities in fundraising–has been done. I now feel as if my trust has been betrayed by this university that is continually asking me for donations.

So how did this spurious email happen. I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that the decisions to use the president of the alumni association’s signature, the wording that made it seem as if the email were coming from the university, and the actual sending from a generic email address were made at lower levels in the organization than the director of alumni relations, the director of development, or the director of institutional advancement. At least I hope so.

The moral to this story is: Email, websites, and other digital media are a new ballgame for many old hands in the development profession, but that doesn’t mean the leaders of an organization and its fundraising efforts can cede decision making to individuals in their organization that know the technology of today’s fundraising and relationship-nurturing tools, but may lack the understanding of what actually nurtures relationship and engenders trust. Relationship and trust are fragile and need to be treated with great care.