October 31, 2010; Source: New York Times | The earthquake in Haiti may have changed the face of mobile giving forever. Using a simple five-digit code and the word “Haiti,” the American Red Cross raised some $2 million in the first 24 hours after the devastating Jan. 12 earthquake—almost as much as was raised in the previous year by nonprofits with text-to-give programs in 2009.
As a result of the $30 million raised overall, nonprofits everywhere scrambled to replicate what many saw as the new best way to raise money. “But replicating that windfall,” writes Stephanie Strom of the New York Times, “is no easy task for most organizations, in particular because the costs of maintaining a mobile donating program can outweigh the proceeds.”
Katrin Verclas, a co-founder of MobileAccess, a nonprofit network of people using mobile phones to advance social welfare told the Times, “Mobile giving isn’t a magic bullet. It’s just one of many tools nonprofits can use.”
Sign up for our free newsletters
Subscribe to NPQ's newsletters to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.
It turns out there is more than one down side to mobile giving campaigns. Phone companies currently cap texted donations to $5 or $10, and only five donations per month are allowed from a single phone. What’s more, most nonprofits don’t have the kind of resources to promote text campaigns adequately. Remember, President Obama promoted the Haiti campaign on T.V. spots during the N.F.L. playoffs.
Another downside is that it is hard to build off of successful campaigns. Groups are not allowed to gather information from a donor to use for other purposes—to build a donor database—unless the donor (the cellphone owner) agrees. Only about 5 percent opted to give their names and addresses to the Red Cross after giving to the Haiti campaign.
James Eberhard, 32, founder of Mobile Accord, whose subsidiary, mGive, was behind the Red Cross’s Haiti campaign said, “If you want to communicate with the generation under 30, text messaging is the way to build a relationship, and nonprofit fundraising is all about building relationships.” This statement may have just made fundraisers everywhere cringe – and rightly so. Text campaigns seem to work best in response to disaster, where “the urgency of now” drives donations. But building relationships? Cultivating sustained giving? IMHO, not so much.—Aaron Lester