**Update on 1/20/10: As of 1/19/10, the text message campaign for the Red Cross has raised $23 million (U.S. State Department).**
When Haiti was struck by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake last week, its tremors were felt all over the social media networks: news of the devastation in Port-au-Prince became a trending topic on Twitter; people were posting 1,500 Haiti-related status updates per minute on Facebook, and Google used its search engine expertise to help people locate loved ones in Haiti.
But amid all the bleak news of destruction, a more hopeful theme also began to get traction through the power and buzz social media: text message donations.
Everyone was sharing this information: cellphone users could (and still can) donate $10 to the American Red Cross by texting the word “Haiti” to 90999. Or donate $5 to the Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund created by Haitian musician, Wyclef Jean, by texting the word “Yele” to 501501. Or donate via other participating charities (the donation is charged to the user’s cellphone bill).
And as of January 16, cellphone users in the United States had raised over $11 million via text message donations for Haitian earthquake relief, with $9 million donated to the American Red Cross and $2 million to Wyclef Jean’s charity.
$11 million dollars! and counting. The Mobile Giving Foundation, which facilitates mobile fund raising for non-profit organizations, has hailed this event as a “mobile giving record”.
What is it about this current situation that has made mobile donations such a powerful way to raise money for disaster relief?
I think that is has actually been a perfect storm of events that has led to this concept gaining traction:
1) Social media and mobile phone penetration sped things up. With 65% of the country having access to a cellphone – and 23% of them using smartphones – texting has become a national pastime; and when a humanitarian crisis like an earthquake demands immediate assistance, to donate via a simple text is probably the easiest and fastest way to help with fund raising. According to The Mobile Giving Foundation, mobile often outpaces on-line donor acquisition by a 3:1 factor, all because of the speed, access and ease of use.
Additionally, the high levels of social media penetration has helped speed up the outreach process and information on how to donate spread like wildfire over Twitter and Facebook. The American Red Cross Facebook Page has been providing regular updates on how the relief efforts are coming. Also, charities such as Oxfam are doing some great Search Engine Marketing and buying sponsored links on Google for keywords like “haiti earthquake” (see right).
Technology is speeding things up and the faster people know what to do and how to help, the faster we can see tremendous results.
2) Donations are texted to reliable organizations like the American Red Cross and Yele Haiti Earthquake Fund. There is no doubt that the credibility of these two organizations motivated people to donate. The Red Cross may be the world’s most powerful philanthropic brand, and Wyclef Jean’s motives – as a native and long-time promoter of issues in Haiti – could not be doubted as anything but completely genuine, so if anyone had been previously skeptical of mobile giving due to doubts about how and where the money would be spent, there was no reason to hold back now.
3) For once, corporate America isn’t being greedy. All the major wireless carriers have waived text message fees for users sending mobile donations, and are making it clear that 100% of the donation is going to the charity, without any cuts for the company. They are also working to decrease the traditional 90 day lag time between when a donation is made and when the funds are received by a charity. Naturally, the urgency of the situation is also creating an atmosphere ripe for well-intentioned rumors, such as the hoax that American Airlines was flying doctors and nurses to Haiti for free to help with relief efforts. However, American Airlines is using the opportunity of debunking the rumor to tell people that it will provide bonus miles to people who donate to charities like the American Red Cross. When the brands you use make it easier for you to help a country in need, the barriers to entry into the world of mobile giving start getting worn down.
4) The charities are looking for small donations. No mobile giving campaign has been set up to ask for more than $10 per text and this is key to the success of such a campaign. People find it much easier to donate when they know it is okay to give in small amounts and they won’t be judged for not giving in the hundreds and thousands. Also, mobile donations tap into a younger text-savvy demographic and these amounts work for them and their limited budgets as well. When disaster strikes, every dollar counts and mobile giving is simply crowd-sourcing at its best.
5) The call to action hit close to home, and not just geographically. Haiti has been in the news for all manners of humanitarian crises, most notably the slew of hurricanes that hit the country in 2008, causing untold destruction and devastation. With Katrina still fresh in the minds of Americans, the season of giving having just passed us by, and the upcoming National Day of Service – today, Martin Luther King Jr. Day – Americans were likely more motivated than ever to do their part in helping a tragedy-stricken country that can’t seem to get a break.
These are some of the ideas that come to mind immediately; I look forward to hearing some ideas from readers as to why they think the concept of mobile giving has gained so much popularity in this particular crisis. And here’s hoping that the donations continue to flow in and that this earthquake in Haiti, though tragic, helps set precedent for levels of charitable giving.