Feb 16, 2010

Giving Via Mobile Text Message: Can It Work for Your Nonprofit?

I was having dinner with friends recently, and out of nowhere, one of them began excitedly describing her experience of having donated $10 to a Haiti-related charity via a mobile phone text message. Her words, more or less, were: "It was so easy! I didn't have to call a number or fill out a form -- all those steps that might normally make me feel like I'd taken on a chore and might want to give up in the middle. Within seconds, I'd made the donation, and felt good about it."

For readers not familiar with this form of giving, here's what the mobile phone donor literally experiences: They're told (via various marketing means) that, by simply typing a numeric code into their mobile phone, and then typing in a word, they can make a donation of a particular amount -- usually $1, $5, or $10 (the max).

For the American Red Cross's Haiti efforts, for example, donors were advised to text the word, "HAITI" and send it to 90999. Donors then get a message asking them to confirm their wish to donate, to which they'll hopefully respond by typing the word, "yes" back, at which point they get another automated confirmation message. When their mobile phone bill comes, they'll see the extra charge representing their donation.

My friend isn't the only one who's finding it easy and satisfying to give via text message. If you look at recent press reports, a number of charities -- particularly those raising funds for Haiti -- are making good use of donors' urges to do something to help right now, immediately, with no unnecessary steps. As Verizon spokesman Chuck Hamby said to Richard Mullins for an article in The Tampa Tribune, "People want to do the right thing and give. When you make it as easy as tapping out a one-word message, people respond."

The numbers are, in some cases, eye-popping -- especially given that the mobile donation systems limit people to $10 per text message or $25 per cause (apparently to protect people from having their kids start happily pressing buttons on their phone). The American Red Cross reported as of January 14, 2010 having raised more than $5 million for Haiti via text-message donations. (See Consumer Reports blog.) 

Of course, such big numbers are partly explained by the fact that fundraising for emergency relief efforts tends to dwarf (or even take away from) fundraising for ongoing needs. Meanwhile, Consumer Reports noted that the American Red Cross's intake was more than three times the amount of money that all U.S. charities had raised via text in the last two years combined.

Nevertheless, the success of the American Red Cross's effort may have awakened audience awareness that texting is an available and easy way to give. What's more, texting as a giving method is reportedly helping charities reach potential new donors who are otherwise hard to connect with, particularly young people or those in minority communities.

Okay, so how realistic is this as a fundraising method for small-ish nonprofits? The numbers still look a bit iffy. The widely acknowledged go-to place for setting up such arrangements is the MGive Foundation. It currently charges a one-time setup fee of $500, plus $399 a month (at its lowest program level) for ongoing services with a one-year minimum contract, plus a per-transaction fee of 35 cents and 3.5% of the donation. This obviously works best for large nonprofits with a big public presence. (In fact, to sign up, MGive requires that your revenues be at least $500,000 per year.)

The fees would be worth the price even for a smaller nonprofit, of course, if the dollars coming in swamped the up-front investment -- but the case studies shown on its website don't indicate that any small or local nonprofits have seen dramatic results. In fact, one of the success stories mentions Defenders of Wildlife (a nonprofit with overall annual revenues of $31 million in 2008) having raised around $2,000 via texting within a two-month period, also during 2008 -- nice, but hardly an avalanche of money.

We're just at the beginning of learning how to use this giving method, however. As more nonprofits get on board, no information will no doubt be developed about how to engage donors' interest and get the maximum return on a text message campaign. It's probably worth keeping your eyes on this emerging possibility -- especially so that you don't try to get on board after its usefulness has peaked!