June 2, 2010; Washington Post | Donating via text message rapidly became a popular strategy, its acceptance accelerated by the urgency of tragedies like the earthquake in Haiti. Eager donors might rush to alleviate the suffering by texting away five or more dollars, as many have to the Red Cross and other nonprofits, but few know exactly where that money is going, and how long it'll take to reach the intended recipients.
The reasons that donations via text message are a good thing are also why they’re problematic; it is instantly gratifying, but in that instant, there's no transparency about the organization receiving funds. Without that knowledge, you could be signed up for a recurring donation, or be giving to a middleman that advocates on behalf of the organization to which you thought you were donating.
Certainly, it's more complicated than typing in a few characters would seem—as in any donor relationship, caution is advised. Unfortunately, the Washington Post article above offers the advice that only big charities can be trusted: "Stick to the big-name charities, and you should be okay," the author writes. It occludes the potential pitfalls of giving only to large organizations, and is awfully detrimental to small nonprofits willing to experiment with this fundraising technique to suggest that those organizations are not trustworthy.
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Carriers who deliver the text message and issue the extra charge on your phone bill, typically keep the funds for between 30 and 60 days before delivering the donation. Sometimes this charitable purgatory lasts longer—as long as a few months. Other limits, like how much a person can donate and how frequently, have been imposed. AT&T, for example, limited donations during the earthquake in Haiti.
It would seem that texting works, but not as well as other mechanisms. This skeptic invites your stories in the comments below. Or click on my name to email.—James David Morgan