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Study: Mobile Devices Facilitate Impulse Giving

By Zach Halper - January 7, 2013

Americans are increasingly using their smartphones for monetary contributions. A new study by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project revealed that those who use this method of giving tend to make the decision to donate without much, if any, research.

The study, “Real Time Charitable Giving,” was conducted in partnership with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University, the mGive Foundation and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Some 863 individuals who contributed money for the 2010 Haiti earthquake relief efforts were surveyed.

The goal of Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project is to study the impact technology has on social and civic issues. Aaron W. Smith, research associate for the project and author of the study, said the survey was conducted because it provided a “nice overlap between the social impact of technology and civic engagement.”

Soon after the earthquake struck Haiti on Jan. 12, 2010, organizations such as the American Red Cross ran campaigns on TV urging viewers to make a small donation (usually $5 to $10) simply by texting a keyword to a listed number. That strategy appears to have worked, as 89 percent of respondents said they first heard about fundraising campaigns for the disaster on television. By comparison, only 4 percent heard the news via the Internet, while only 2 percent mention the radio, text messages, or posts on social networking sites such as Facebook.

“People get their information from many different sources these days,” said Smith. “Television just happens to be the one that they remember the most.” Smith also theorized that the tragic images presented in the commercials might have played a role in spurring people to action. “I think that one of the reasons we saw such an outpouring of mobile donations was the fact that this was a big, visible tragedy combined with the fact that as people were watching these images on TV they could simply reach into their pocket and make a contribution to the relief efforts.”

The decision to contribute money to a cause is usually something donors don’t take lightly, but it wasn’t the case in this situation. In fact, 50 percent of those who heard about the relief efforts via television made their pledge immediately. An additional 23 percent donated on the same day they heard about the campaign, and 20 percent waited between a day and a week. Only 5 percent waited more than a week to donate. Yet, even those donors who didn’t contribute immediately did not necessarily use that time for additional research. In fact, when asked if they took this time to see how their money would be spent, 70 percent said they did not do this research. Given that half of those surveyed donated immediately, just 14 percent researched where their money would be going.

On the other hand, half of the donors surveyed say they typically do a lot more research before donating money online.

“The quantity of money involved is probably one reason” these donors do more research, said Smith. He also mentioned another factor could be that mobile donations are “low friction transactions;” you don’t need a credit card and you don’t have to fill out any forms. “All these things taken together, [mobile donors] don’t feel the need to conduct much research.”

This could also explain why relatively few of the Haiti donors continued to monitor the ongoing reconstruction efforts. Just 3 percent of those surveyed have been following post-earthquake events “very closely,” while six in ten say that they have been following them either “not too closely” (43 percent) or “not at all” (15 percent). Smith also theorizes that all the information bombarded upon Americans in today’s society makes it hard to focus on one thing.

“Since people are swimming in oceans of information these days, there is always something else that can grab their attention,” he explained. “It’s indicative of the problems facing charitable organizations: How do you grab and maintain people’s attention? With all of the things going on in the world, is it really realistic to keep people’s interest?”

Despite the fact that they mostly didn’t follow the reconstruction in Haiti, a majority of the text donors surveyed (56 percent) contributed to a wide array of other text-based recovery efforts. These included:

  • The March 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan (40 percent);
  • The 2010 BP oil spill in the US Gulf region (27 percent); and,
  • The 2011 tornadoes that hit much of the Midwest, including Joplin, Mo. (18 percent)

An additional 29 percent of these donors sent text donations to some other organization or cause besides the ones listed above. “Even though a lot of them didn’t follow the Haiti reconstruction efforts closely, they were following the events taking place in the world later,” said Smith. “So it wasn’t that they weren’t engaged in these types of efforts.”

The study also included other statistics about mobile donors:

  • When it comes to methods of giving, text messaging was preferred by the majority of those surveyed (25 percent), followed by online web forms (24 percent), mail (22 percent), and in-person donations (19 percent).
  • Only 6 percent of the mobile givers preferred making donations over the phone.
  • Just under half (43 percent) encouraged their friends or family members to make a contribution via text messages. Most of these efforts (76 percent) were successful.
  • The majority of donors who encouraged giving among friends and family did so either in-person (75 percent) or via a phone call (38 percent). By comparison, 34 percent reached out through text messages, 21 percent via a posting on a social networking site, and only 10 percent through e-mail.

You can download the full report for free by visiting


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