Mobile Giving for Haiti
On January 12, 2010, a 7.0-magnitude earthquake shook Haiti. The epicenter of the earthquake was just 16 miles west of Port-au-Prince, Haiti’s capital. The catastrophic nature of the earthquake led to widespread damage and destruction across the region. Countries from around the world quickly clamored to respond to the emergency. While governments and relief organizations were working to provide on-the-ground aid, how could average citizens around the world help? What type of fund-raising methods could provide public donations most quickly and effectively?
Soon after the earthquake hit, James Eberhard, chairman and CEO of Mobile Accord and its mGive mobile giving service, was contacted by the U.S. government and asked to put together a mobile donation program. mGive works across cellular network carriers and enables charitable organizations to collect donations, making it an ideal platform for collecting donations for the Red Cross working on the ground in Haiti. Within a few hours, Eberhard, in partnership with the U.S. State Department, launched the Text Haiti 90999 program.
THE TOOLS AND TACTICS
By texting the keyword “HAITI” to the shortcode 90999, any cell phone subscriber could donate $10 to the Red Cross. The subscriber would receive a text back asking them to confirm the gift by replying “Yes.” After a confirmation, the person would then get a text reading "Thanks! $10 charged to your phone bill for Red Cross Int'l Relief." With a typical mobile campaign, the donation fee is applied to the subscriber’s cell phone bill, and funds raised are then distributed to their designated organizations within 60 to 90 days. Wireless carriers and mGive waived these fees and expedited the distribution of funds to ensure that 100 percent of each $10 donation was distributed as quickly as possible to the Red Cross in Haiti.
Michelle Obama also filmed a public service announcement for the campaign that aired frequently on TV, including during the 2010 Superbowl.
“The devastation in Haiti has brought out the very best in people, and we feel it is our duty to do everything we can to help,” said Eberhard. “When we created the mobile giving channel we had always hoped to never have to use it in a situation like this, but in the wake of such a catastrophe, it has empowered all Americans with the ability to quickly respond and make an impact.”
Mobile giving is quick, easy, and fast. You don’t have to worry about losing potential donations because someone isn’t at their computer and doesn't have their checkbook in hand at the moment. It’s immediate.
THE STUMBLING BLOCKS
Prior to the earthquake in Haiti, Eberhard had launched a large-scale campaign with the United Way based around a commercial that aired during the 2008 Superbowl. The following year, mGive partnered with Alicia Keys, who promoted her Keep a Child Alive campaign during an episode of "American Idol." These experiences helped mGive improve its infrastructure and processing power to handle large volumes of donations.
Since mobile giving campaigns are relatively new, some people didn’t understand exactly how mobile giving worked. This was their first experience using a mobile SMS payment service. It was important for the campaign to clearly describe how the donation was added to the user’s monthly cell phone bill, and that each time a text was sent to the 90999 shortcode, the subscriber was charged $10.
The greatest challenge faced by mGive was processing the donations fast enough. How many donations could its system handle per minute?
Katie Stanton, former senior advisor for innovation in the office of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, praised the campaign, saying:
“mGive helped make technological history by working with the U.S. Department of State to establish a program quickly that has allowed more than 2 million Americans to direct support to people in need in Haiti."
Pew Research Center found that of Americans who have donated money to help Haiti, 14 percent say they gave money via text message, compared to 12 percent by telephone. Nearly 23 percent of respondents said they donated via the web, and 5 percent did so by e-mail. Giving donations in person still dominates so far, with 39 percent saying that they have given in person.
“Raising this amount of money $10 at a time is a true testament to the American spirit,” Jeffrey Towers, American Red Cross Chief Development Officer, said in a statement. “The success of the mobile campaign shows the powerful impact and opportunity this channel can have on fund-raising. The needs in Haiti are tremendous and we want to thank the people who continue to donate and help the American Red Cross meet that need.” While the Red Cross campaign was the largest mobile giving campaign, there were many other text-to-give campaigns associated with other nonprofit organizations providing relief in Haiti.
Given the amount of resources that go into running a mobile campaign, it would be challenging for a grassroots organization to launch their own campaign. Mobile giving is challenging to set up and maintain, as short codes are regulated by cell phone service providers and programs must be approved by mobile campaign providers like mGive or Mobile Giving. That said, m-giving is becoming more commonplace and the barriers to entry will likely lower in the years to come. You can learn more about m-giving by checking out our guide on mobile fund-raising.