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Fundraising Via Mobile Apps Can Still Be A Challenge

By Elizabeth Pope - April 1, 2013

There’s an app for almost everything, even in fundraising. With mobile devices reaching near-ubiquity, donors want to use their smartphones or tablets to give to their favorite charities. Some nonprofits are optimizing their websites to make it easier for mobile users to donate, others are experimenting with text-to-give programs.

But with so many people downloading mobile applications, or apps, to their mobile devices, it makes sense to consider the types of apps available to help with fundraising.

Unfortunately, the answer might not be what organizations want to hear.

Apps are downloaded directly by consumers with smartphones or tablets, usually from a central online repository maintained by the vendor of the mobile operating system. The two biggest players in the mobile market are Apple, whose iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad products use apps available from the App Store, and Google’s Android devices, whose users download apps from the Google Play site. There are a number of other options including BlackBerry and Microsoft Windows Phones.

Many apps are free to download, which is one of their major selling points. Those that are not free usually cost less than $10. Another key benefit is that, depending on their complexity, many apps make content available to users even when they don’t have an active Internet or data connection, something you can’t do with a website.

But there’s a paucity of mobile apps for fundraising. One reason is that since 2010, Apple has banned charitable donations made through apps on its iOS platform, the software that powers iPhones, iPod Touches, and iPads. Apps can suggest that users donate, and can direct them to the nonprofit’s website, but cannot explicitly say anywhere in the app or its description that some or all proceeds will go to charity.

The net effect of this is that users who want to give via their Apple device face a number of obstacles. Once they click the donate button, they’re taken outside the app and forced to navigate through the organization’s website donation form or an external site like PayPal or Google Checkout. The extra steps risk alienating or losing potential donors, especially on the small screens of mobile devices.

Apple has approximately 15 percent of the U.S. market share for smartphone users, second only to the Android platform. The nonprofit technology community has been critical of Apple’s decision, but so far the company has held firm. Apple claims it does not want to be responsible for ensuring that charitable funds reach their destination.

In addition, Apple takes a 30 percent cut of any payments made through its iOS mobile platform, such as for merchandise sold through an app. So, even if it allowed nonprofits to accept donations the fees would prove untenable. In an editorial for Ars Technica, Jake Shapiro, the CEO of PRX (Public Radio Exchange), estimated that “public media, nonprofits, and charities are already missing out on tens of millions of dollars of potential donations through iTunes and Apple devices, and hundreds of millions as the iPhone/iPad and whatever is next continue to grow in popularity and use.”


Friend-to-Friend Fundraising

The restrictions are not deterring all nonprofits from experimenting with mobile apps. The Salvation Army Headquarters for Bermuda and Canada deployed an app to take advantage of the familiarity of its Christmas red kettle fundraising campaign. Constituents downloaded the app, called iKettle, which let them create and share their own virtual “kettle” web pages and invite others to donate in support of The Salvation Army’s work. Essentially, it’s friend-to-friend fundraising. iKettle includes a “Donate Now” button, but when users click it, a new browser window opens outside of the app.

Graham Moore, public relations and development secretary of The Salvation Army Headquarters for Canada and Bermuda, worked with contractors to design and build the app. The organization found that technology consulting companies were eager to dive into the mobile space, meaning that their services were relatively affordable.

“The Salvation Army is trying to be in on the ground floor with a lot of this,” he said.

Other organizations have found success with using mobile apps for friend-to-friend fundraising. Movember, an organization originally founded in Australia in 2003, raises funds for men’s health charities by encouraging male constituents to grow bushy mustaches throughout the month of November. The nonprofit’s playful, youth-savvy brand is a good fit for the mobile app landscape, and when the popular tech blog Mashable gave generous coverage to Movember Mobile’s launch, the app went viral.

Available for Android and iOS platforms, Movember Mobile lets participants, called “Mo’s on the Go,” share photographs of their progress toward the goal: The most ridiculous facial hair in their circle of friends. Participants can use the app at the end of the month to create an animated GIF image that shows the progress of the mustache over time. The real aim of the Movember Mobile app was to recruit and track friend-to-friend donors within the social network it creates, and to ask them to support the user’s cause with a financial contribution.

But recruited donors could not donate through the app. They were redirected to Movember’s mobile website to make the contribution, which required them to laboriously type in a credit card number on a small touch screen. The “Request” and “Recruit” tabs simply redirected users to external social media and email tools.

Other nonprofits using friend-to-friend fundraising have relied on mobile apps that leverage existing social networks popular with their constituents. For example, the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life app integrates seamlessly with Facebook, the billion-user strong social network, rather than creating a standalone social network such as the Movember app.

Built by the nonprofit strategy firm Charity Dynamics in Austin, Texas, the app works in conjunction with the American Cancer Society’s main fundraising campaign, a worldwide series of relay races. The app is available on iOS, Android, and BlackBerry devices to any of the four million participants who register for events in their communities.

Charity Dynamics linked the app to Facebook’s Social Share tool so the app can automatically post a thank you message on the participant’s Facebook wall each time a supporter donates to a Relay for Life team. According to the firm, users of the iPhone app in 2012 raised 180 percent more money and generated three times as many gifts as participants not using the app. The “share on Facebook” functionality led to an additional 1,200 donations.

As with the Movember app, the American Cancer Society marketed the Relay for Life app as a means of tracking progress toward a friend-to-friend fundraising goal and generating publicity for the constituents’ cause rather than primarily as a means of receiving donations.

Native mobile apps like these are expensive to create and support. Because each mobile platform uses proprietary technology, the underlying code for an Apple app can’t provide the underpinning for one for Android or BlackBerry. That means nonprofits have to fund and build apps for each platform or risk alienating a percentage of their constituents.

Experts estimate a nonprofit should expect to pay at least $30,000 per platform to create a mobile app. For multiple mobile platforms, this means a cost in the six figures just to create and roll out a product branded with the organization’s content.

Mobile apps also require users to download updates to keep them current and functioning. Because people are quick to post negative reviews online if apps are slow or buggy, apps also run the risk of generating negative publicity. Another approach is to design a mobile web app — essentially, hosted applications users access through smartphone or tablet browsers rather than by downloading them — but even those can cost in the five figures per month to maintain.


Other Options

A more affordable option is to take advantage of one of the third-party fundraising tools already on the market, like Razoo, RAZ Mobile and JustGiving, which offer help with the process of soliciting donations.

Calling itself a “crowdfunding platform,” Razoo charges less than 3 percent per transaction, less than many similar tools. Organizations that already use Razoo to help with fundraising can use its native app, offered as a free download (iPhone only), which allows users to email thank yous and donation solicitations and lets them post updates to Razoo directly from the app.

Razoo bills the app as a tracking and communications device for fundraising rather than a means to collect funds, and Apple’s charitable donation restriction means there’s no way within the app to make a donation. There’s not even a clear way for users to access the mobile website of the Razoo campaign they’re tracking to donate there.

Similarly, the U.K.-based JustGiving runs on Apple’s iOS platform and allows those participating in crowd fundraising efforts to track donations, thank supporters, and update followers on their progress but not to accept money.

RAZ Mobile in Kansas City, Mo., allows supporters who have made a donation to create a unique and secure PIN which allows them to bypass entering their information and make another donation to any cause using RAZ Mobile with a few taps on their smartphone.

Launched in January, Microsoft’s HelpBridge app is meant to be employed in the event of a disaster, and was developed in partnership with some heavy hitters in the nonprofit technology world, including GuideStar, Mobile Giving Foundation, Network for Good and VolunteerMatch. Available for the Android, Apple and Windows Phone platforms, HelpBridge is a complex app that lets users quickly communicate with loved ones in the wake of a disaster. It also offers opportunities to donate. Users can make text-to-give donations of $5 or $10 within the app, or, for larger donations, choose from a list of larger charities to be routed out of the app’s interface to a PayPal transaction.


Apps To Help Fundraisers

In addition to fundraising apps targeted specifically at constituents, organizations have another option: apps to help their staff members with the responsibilities and logistics of fundraising — in other words, tools for fundraisers rather than fundraising. Some donor management systems, including Blackbaud’s The Raiser’s Edge and SofterWare’s DonorPerfect, have introduced free app versions of their systems for fundraisers’ mobile devices.

The idea is that such mobile versions facilitate tasks in a way not possible through the hosted system. For example, after lunch with a major donor, a development director could use an iPhone to update that donors’ constituent record to indicate a new pledge. Mobile apps also make contact information and other demographic data readily accessible outside the office, which can be tremendously beneficial to development staff meeting with donors or attending events.

Nonprofits might also consider payment-processing apps to help with fundraising events requiring direct payments, such as auctions. These apps incorporate Point of Sale (POS) technology in the form of credit card readers that work through mobile devices. One in particular, Square, has become increasingly popular among small business owners and merchants. The product includes a small piece of hardware that plugs into mobile devices and acts as a card swipe reader, and an accompanying mobile app.

The 2012 Presidential campaign was a good case study for nonprofits interested in using such apps to directly collect funds. Both the Obama and Romney camps experimented with Square, but the Romney campaign took particular advantage of the platform to accept donations. It branded the card readers with the Romney logo for the Republican National Convention and gave them to delegates to use in fundraising efforts back home.

Romney aides said the campaign used Square as a “community engagement” app rather than a fundraising tool, but said the small contributions it facilitated could make it more cost-effective as a fundraising mechanism than either direct mail or telephone solicitations. Square’s 2.75 percent cut of every payment made through the tool is less than many other payment processing services, and there’s none of the overhead of traditional fundraising outreach.

However, Square doesn’t store the contact information of those who use it to donate. While this measure protects the privacy of donors, it’s antithetical to the list-building goals of most nonprofits that want to track donors in constituent databases.

Despite the increasing popularity of mobile devices and the growing choice of platforms, the landscape of fundraising apps available to nonprofits remains limited. While Apple’s restrictions create a notable obstacle, such apps have yet to be developed in large numbers for competing platforms like Android and Windows phone.

Until they are more plentiful, organizations keen to embrace mobile technology in fundraising efforts might want to begin by experimenting with mobile apps for fundraisers before making the more expensive and higher-risk leap into apps for end users.  NPT

Elizabeth Pope is senior researcher at Idealware in Portland, Maine.


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