Text donations for Haiti relief spur nonprofits to follow suit

But the $10 limit could curtail donations from those willing to give more

Nonprofit groups desperate to raise donations during the economic downturn are considering text-to-donate campaigns similar to the wildly successful American Red Cross campaign to solicit funds for Haiti earthquake relief efforts.

The Red Cross raised $32 million in a month in $10 donations for Haiti relief by urging donors to text "Haiti" to 90999 on their cell phones. The donations were collected by wireless carriers and forwarded to the relief agency. The effort raised $4 million just two days after the Jan. 12 disaster that killed more than 200,000 people.

"All the nonprofits woke up and are very keen on mobile giving after seeing the [Red Cross] rake it in," said Katrin Verclas, an analyst at MobileActive.org in New York, a group committed to promoting mobile giving.

"Based on the inquiries we get, we're seeing enormous interest in going beyond emergency relief like Haiti to finding mobile functions to augment and supplement their other fundraising campaigns," Verclas said in an interview.

A study of six nonprofits (free with registration) that Verclas co-wrote outlines some of the strategies the groups deployed in campaigns involving text donations and other forms of solicitation. The study, called "2010 Nonprofit Text Messaging Benchmarks" by M+R Strategic Services and MobileActive.org, noted that the American Red Cross's mobile fundraising campaign is the largest-grossing such effort to date. The study was undertaken because of the attention that the Red Cross campaign has generated.

"The Haiti earthquake marked a turning point in mobile giving," the study says. "It showed that text messaging can be a far-reaching tool for immediate engagement."

Nonprofits had already begun using text messaging for fundraising and recruitment and engagement of new and existing members before the Haiti earthquake, the report states, noting that 90% of Americans own mobile phones and keep them close by. The study also says that text messaging is especially well suited for call-in alerts, but it also has "substantial limitations," including the 160-character limit that "leaves little space to make a case for giving or taking action."

The biggest quantifiable success the study found was the percentage of people contacted by text who returned a call to a candidate for public office or other decision-maker on behalf of an organization, such as an animal rights group. The response rate on such advocacy text messages was 4.7%, nearly six times the response rate for advocacy e-mails. "This rate is impressive, and indicative of the power of text messaging to generate an immediate response," the study says.

But there are limitations. It wasn't until 2007 that nonprofit groups and others could solicit donations from U.S. wireless subscribers. Even now, donations can only be made in $5 and $10 amounts because of restrictions imposed by the wireless carriers.

"The $10 donation is a far cry from the $71 average donation seen across the nonprofit sector in response to e-mail solicitations," the study notes, arguing that it is "potentially risky" to solicit gifts via text message from active donors who would give more through another channel.

The study urges using text messaging as part of a multichannel fundraising strategy that includes e-mail, Web, direct mail and phone calls. For example, to get around the $10 texting limit, an organization could send a text asking subscribers to call a toll-free number or reply "call," to be connected to a call center that could take a donation of any amount.

All the major U.S. carriers quickly forwarded the donations to the Red Cross for Haiti relief efforts, and most carriers donated the cost of sending a text message, Verclas said.

Making a text donation is an easy impulse buy that can be fairly expensive to donors and recipients alike if each text message costs 20 cents or more to send, Verclas noted. Roughly half of cell phone subscribers have unlimited texting plans paid at a fixed monthly cost, but the other half pay 20 cents or more per text, meaning a single donation could end up costing 80 cents or more. That's because U.S. mobile carriers charge both the sender and recipient for each message, and since a confirmation text is often sent back to the donor, the act of donating could involve four such charges.

With a single donation of $10, an 80-cent texting charge would be a steep percentage of the total, Verclas noted. "Mobile giving is great for impulse giving, but you do pay for impulse giving," she noted.

Verclas has edited an article called "Texting for Charitable Dollars: The Definitive Guide to Mobile Fundraising" that describes the text-giving process in greater detail.

The study by MobileActive.org and M+R Strategic Services looked at the texting practices of six groups: the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, Planned Parenthood Federation of America, NARAL Pro-Choice America, The Humane Society of the United States, Defenders of Wildlife and the Human Rights Campaign.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed @matthamblen or subscribe to . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

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