Tectonic shift in texting helps after Haiti quake

When disaster struck Haiti, the international community answered the call. Well, almost: They started to text.

An enormous amount of money was raised through text messaging initiatives to assist relief efforts in Haiti after a devastating earthquake hit the country on Jan. 12.

In all, more than $41 million has been raised by 36 organizations via text. The bulk of that money—about $32 million, according to data from March—was raised by the Red Cross. The organization had collected more than $354 million for Haitian relief by mid-March through text messaging and traditional relief fundraising efforts.

Meanwhile, other organizations helping Haiti via text include Partners in Health, a charity that works with poor countries to provide health care, and musician Wyclef Jean’s Yéle Haiti Foundation.

Relief for Haiti has become the biggest effort to ever benefit from mobile relief to date, and it utilizes the same type of micro approach that helped put Barack Obama into the White House: small contributions from lots of people.

“The bulk of the money for Haitian relief came from $5 and $10 donations,” says Jim Manis, chairman and CEO of the Mobile Giving Foundation. “People felt empowered to give, it was easy to give and they wanted to give.”

Here’s how it works: Interested donors text the word HAITI to 90999. (That’s the Red Cross’ text code. Other organizations have different codes.) A free reply is sent back, asking you to confirm the donation by replying “Yes.” Once confirmed, $10 is charged to your phone bill, but you are not charged a fee for sending the charitable text.

The Mobile Giving foundation, which Manis started in 2007 with the assistance of the nation’s wireless carriers, provided the underlying technology for text donations and includes safeguards that make sure the $10 you send to Haiti is properly routed.

The mobile phone industry has capped monthly text donations at $30. While this may seem bizarre—why cap charitable giving?—the policy doesn’t come without reason: There were reports that well-intentioned children were sending relief texts without permission. Meanwhile, women played tricks on flirtatious men by texting relief to Haiti instead of keying their phone numbers into would-be suitors’ cell phones.

Other safeguards have been put in place as well: If text-senders have questions about the donations, they can text HELP. Likewise, if a text was sent by a child without permission, a parent can text STOP—but that requires the parent to notice that a phone has been used to send the relief messages.

The Haiti campaign was the tipping point for mobile charitable giving. Before the disaster, Manis says about 300 organizations only managed to raise about $3 million through mobile giving campaigns.

“It was everyday charitable giving,” he says, “for groups like the American Cancer Society, small food banks and even entertainers [with charitable arms] like John Legend.”

With the Mobile Giving Foundation’s software and hardware infrastructure in place, the system was prepared to mobilize when the Haiti disaster struck. “We pioneered this space … and put a system in place that without us the Haiti text relief wouldn’t have occurred,” Manis says.

Within 48 hours of the earthquake, more than $5 million had been raised through text messaging, according to news reports. During those first days, up to 10,000 relief-giving text messages were arriving per second, each generating $10 of funding.

A trio of surveys conducted by Convio, Edge Research and Sea Change Strategies found that nearly $50 million was raised through texts to assist Haiti, while only $1 million had been raised previously. (The results of this three-tier study include text donations that originated on platforms other than the mobile phone, such as Facebook.)

Additionally, the survey found that mobile giving “must be used at the right time, in the right place, and with the right audience.” An immediate emergency need—in this case, Haiti—was deemed acceptable as well as funding raised through “someone in a personal network.” Whereas 36 percent of all respondents said they would be willing to donate via text for a disaster, only 26 percent reported they would be willing donate to a charity if prompted by a scoreboard at a stadium. Meanwhile, the survey found younger people, who often rely more on texting to communicate compared with older mobile phone users, were more likely to donate. (No real surprise there!)

Curiously enough, Manis says the more-recent earthquake in Chile did not raise nearly the amount of funds as Haiti. Still, relief organizations say a key reason for this is because in the wake of the earthquake, the Chilean government said that it did not need international aid. Manis says the text-generated relief for Chile totals less than $1 million.

Even so, charitable giving through text messaging is poised to grow because of the Haitian efforts. Manis says since the earthquake, between 600 and 700 charitable organizations have approached his company asking how they can harness the power of charitable giving via text messaging.

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