Haitian disaster makes mobile giving take off

For Julie Strange, helping the victims of a devastating earthquake in Haiti was just a text message away.

The 27-year-old Towson librarian read on Twitter of an American Red Cross campaign to raise money for disaster relief in the shattered country through text messaging. Within a few minutes, she made a $10 donation by texting the word "HAITI" to a five-digit number - an act of mobile giving that she's done for other charities for a couple of years now.

"It's definitely starting to get a little mainstream now," Strange said.

In a tough economy where people have been guarded with their wallets, organizations such as the American Red Cross are finding thousands of donors who are more willing to text-message for charity, often giving in small dollar increments. After launching the mobile giving campaign early Wednesday, the Red Cross raised more than $3 million through text-message donations within 31 hours - or more than one-third of the $10 million in total donations collected by the organization in the early hours of the disaster.

For many involved in the fundraising, the Haiti disaster is now being hailed as a milestone for mobile giving. Both online and mobile giving have been fueled by the rise of social media Web sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, with users all over the world quickly sharing information on ways to help and donate money.

"It's definitely the biggest [mobile giving] amount we've seen in the United States," said Carrie Housman, a spokeswoman for the American Red Cross, referring to the recent Haiti contributions. "This is our first time using it for an international disaster, and it's been tremendously successful. We're just overwhelmed by the generosity of the American people. It's incredible that we've been able to raise it $10 at a time."

The outpouring of mobile giving comes against a backdrop of declines in charitable donations in the United States over the past year because of a weak economy and the recession, experts said. Charitable donations to nonprofits declined more than 9 percent in 2009, said Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. But Palmer predicted that Americans will be so struck by the horrors in Haiti that they will "find a way to reach in and give."

Just as in past disasters that saw more people turning to online giving, she predicted, the Haiti disaster would make people more comfortable with texting their donations to charities.

"I think texting was probably waiting for this kind of moment to take off," Palmer said. "I suspect more and more groups will be trying it."

The technology behind mobile giving - essentially simple text messaging through SMS, or Short Message Service - has been around for several years. Nonprofits have teamed up with technology companies and wireless providers to set up the technical systems they need to collect donations via text messages and then forward the funds to the charities.

Jeffrey Nelson, a spokesman for Verizon Wireless, said mobile giving has been steadily growing as a trend over the past five years. In 2004, CARE, a nonprofit, raised $200,000 to benefit the victims of the tsunami in the Indian Ocean, he said.

The next best day for mobile giving came shortly after Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans in 2005: Wireless customers and carriers helped raise $400,000 in the first 24 hours, he said.

But wireless customers' response to the Haiti effort has been record-setting, said Nelson.

"This is an incredible confluence of events that have come together in a brand-new kind of philanthropic support," Nelson said.

Generally, the money that people send via text message can take one to three months to make its way from a consumer's cell phone bill to a charity, but both nonprofits have pledged to speed up the process with the Haiti disaster. The American Red Cross has also committed to forwarding $10 million in funds to the relief effort, as an advance based on the amount they've raised through online, text message and telephone donations.

Two nonprofits involved in coordinating the technological effort are the Mobile Giving Foundation, based in Washington, and mGive in Colorado. The Mobile Giving Foundation is working with singer Wyclef Jean's Yele Haiti Foundation and the William J. Clinton Foundation on text-messaging campaigns. MGive is working with the American Red Cross.

Jim Manis, founder, chairman and chief executive officer of the Mobile Giving Foundation, pioneered the technology in the mid-2000s and worked with wireless companies to have it ready for nonprofits and consumers to use. The Haiti disaster, he said, is now an "inflection point" for the mobile giving sector.

"Part of what we're doing is trying to change the face of philanthropy by increasing micro-donations," Manis said. "These horrible events, like the disaster in Haiti, create awareness around our existing abilities for mobile giving."

For the typical donor with a wireless account, the donation simply is added to the monthly statement as a straightforward transaction. Some wireless companies might include some type of text-message usage charge with the transaction. Verizon Wireless is not charging its customers any fees, nor do the charitable text messages count against an all-inclusive messaging plan, Nelson said.