Texting campaign raises millions for Haiti relief

January 14, 2010 7:23:29 PM PST
The future of charitable donations may be changing as a result of the success in texting aid for Haitian relief.

By simply texting a five-digit number into their mobile phones, donors responding to the earthquake disaster in Haiti are giving millions of dollars. Over $4 million has been raised since the campaign began Tuesday night. A $10 donation is made each time a cell phone user texts 90999.

The power of texting has surprised the wireless industry and the red cross.

"Didn't have to look it up online, didn't have to figure out where to go, didn't have to drive anywhere, didn't have to write out a check or anything like that," said text donor Dave Katz. "So it was very convenient."

It has motivated what could be a new generation of contributors.

"We hope that the people who text, who typically are under 30, will start giving and realize that it feels good to give and to help others," said Cynthia Shaw of Red Cross Silicon Valley.

The campaign is being run by Denver-based mGive Foundation, which raises money on behalf of 200 charitable organizations by text messaging. The funds are going to the American Red Cross. The donation appears on the subscriber's cell phone bill. The White House website and former President Bill Clinton, a special envoy to Haiti, have been publicizing the campaign.

Clinton has given text donations a boost by suggesting it can be a way to help with the massive humanitarian and reconstruction effort in Haiti. However, a warning is going out that the flood of donations has triggered scams online and potentially over mobile phones.

"As soon as something like this happens, people buy domains and they start faking it," said Beth Kanter who blogs about non-profits and social media. "You can avoid this by giving to mainstream, well-known charities such as the American Red Cross."

There are an estimated 270 million mobile phone users in the U.S. The ease of making text donations may attract money from a different demographic group than those who might otherwise write checks or go online.

Robert Weiner, a San Francisco-based consultant on technology to non-profit groups, says there is a downside to the $10 text donations. Some individuals may want to give more, Weiner said. Also, Weiner says there is a certain amount of anonymity to the donation. The charitable group does not know who the donor is. Many non-profits cultivate donor relationships in the hope of generating on-going or future donations.

The emotional response to the tragedy in Haiti has unleashed an instant response. It has also created a potential new way for traditional fundraisers to incorporate technology into soliciting donations.

"This will be a component of fundraising as we go forward, but it's not refined yet. We're at the very early stages" said Emmett Carson, CEO of the Silicon Valley Community Foundation. He says they are still looking at "how to incorporate this technology into more traditional campaigns."

Previous texting campaigns have raised considerably more modest amounts of money. Until the Haiti effort, it is believed that the largest texting campaign by the TV show "American Idol" raised $450,000 in $5 increments.

At least two major carriers, AT&T and Verizon, have indicated that they will absorb any text costs involved in the donations. Other carriers may jump on board as well. Verizon Wireless is already calling Wednesday "the biggest day in the history of mobile giving in the U.S."