Texting From Church

February 15, 2010       Kate Rogers      

When disaster struck in Haiti last month, Lutheran World Relief (LWR) in Baltimore, Md., asked parishioners to turn on their cell phones in church. While chatting on the phone in your pew might not be socially conventional, texting in church has been deemed acceptable at LWR — as long as it’s for charity.

Americans texted more than $30 million to Haitian relief through both religious and secular organizations.

Hayley Hontos, communications projects coordinator at LWR, said the organization had been thinking about launching a mobile campaign, but was waiting for the right time to kick off. In the wake of the Haiti earthquake, Hontos said LWR saw the opportunity to reach a larger donor base. “It seemed like a popular and exciting way for people to get involved,” she said. “It’s also good for people who felt they couldn’t make a large donation online or by check.”

Large religious organizations are often at the forefront of technology, such as the televangelists whose ministries reach out through various channels. But medium to small religious groups often don’t have the ability to adapt to the newest technologies. Technologies such as mobile giving, where a third-party does most of the work, are opening new fundraising doors.

When nonprofits launch a mobile campaign, a third-party aggregator, such as The Mobile Giving Foundation or Mobile Accord, is used to create the system, and through an application service provider, collects the money. It’s not inexpensive. For example, Mobile Accord and mGive, its service platform, can cost a nonprofit between $500 and $1,000 monthly for a short code, and $10,000 to set up. Sr. Georgette Lehmuth OSF, president and CEO of the Hemstead, N.Y.-based National Catholic Development Conference, said 72 percent of the organization’s more than 350 members reported moving toward new technology, including social media and texting campaigns. The survey was conducted last spring.

Although religious organizations might have become active in this form of soliciting donations later than secular nonprofits, Lehmuth said many are making the effort to get on board. “Those who are engaged in social service or relief efforts and emergency situations are leading the others,” she said of religious charities. “They are learning that this is an effective mode.”

Catholic Relief Services, also in Baltimore, launched a text donation campaign after the Haiti quake. Laura Durington, online community manager for the charity, said donors were asked to text in to a short code, where they could then listen to a voice message about Haiti from Ken Hackett, the CRS’s president. From there, they were connected to the charity’s donation hotline. Durington said more than 4,300 people used the texting service and were directed to the donation line. “We weren’t sure what kind of response we would get,” she said, “but we are just thrilled. Mobile donations are a bit complicated, and still working their kinks out. It is daunting because you’re not quite sure what you will get out of it.”

Since its donor base reacted positively, CRS is planning on incorporating standard text donation campaigns into its fundraising mix, Durington said. Text donations are accessible and fast, Hontos said, which is what made a mobile campaign so appealing to LWR.

“Even a 14-year-old who gets an allowance can text in a donation,” she said. “It’s important for nonprofits, because it’s expanding the audience base. Everyone, at some level, wants to help, and this is a really easy way to help.” While mobile donations might be simple for the donor, Durington said the opportunity is not there for nonprofits to make a real connection with donors through text campaigns.

“It’s a very quick no-brainer way to give for most people,” she said. “But, the downside is that there is no level of stewardship there. In a disaster situation, however, it is low-commitment and very easy.” Other religious nonprofits, such as Catholic Charities USA, based in Alexandria, Va., have been later to the game of text donations. Roger Conner, communications director, said the organization has been looking into launching a text donation campaign for nearly a year, but has not yet jumped on the bandwagon. Conner said developing a donor base that understands new technology is vital to success.

“As a nonprofit, you are constantly looking at ways to appeal to Generation Y and X,” he said. “It’s a matter of getting people who are comfortable with technology like mobile campaigns, and turning them into donors.” Religious charities often have an image of appealing only to an older donor base, which is not reality, Conner said.

“There is some notion that our donors (religious donors) are older and not as familiar with technology, but we are increasingly seeing that is not the case,” he said. “You have to be mindful of spending money in ways that work, especially being a nonprofit. Also, you have to be on top of state-of-the-art technology, in terms of getting donations.” Some organizations have been hesitant, Hontos said, because resources are so precious to nonprofits. “It might take religious organizations longer to jump on and vet something, and make sure it’s appropriate and fits their audience,” she said.

Durington said scant staffing at faith-based charities might also account for slower embracing of social media and new technology. “Faith-based organizations are much smaller and might be struggling to get Web donations and email marketing programs under way,” she said. “It is just another channel they don’t have the capacity to manage.” The Salvation Army, also in Alexandria, Va., tested a mobile texting campaign during the holiday season to disappointing results, according to Maj. George Hood, chief communications officer. Hood said donations were inconsistent and insignificant compared to other proven fundraising outlets.

Part of Hood’s issue with mobile campaigning is that it takes too long for charities to see the money they have raised. “If you text today, that donation is not processed until you (a donor) pay the bill,” he said. “It can take 90 to 120 days before you (a charity) see the money. Other channels are much faster in terms of generating cash.”

Hood said the Salvation Army generated close to $33,000 for Haiti by press time. Due to the urgency of the situation, the organization would rather go the traditional route for soliciting donations. Hood said contracts the charity has seen deduct too large of a percentage from the donations for aggregator services, therefore the mobile donation platform isn’t effective as of yet. According to Jeff Ostiguy, vice president at g8wave, Inc., one of the Mobile Giving Foundation’s licensed ASPs, nonprofits pay monthly fees of between $300 and $500 for service, as well as small transaction fees between 11 cents and 15 cents per donation.

Dave Asheim, president of Give By Cell, another ASP, said wireless carriers are not charging nonprofits for this type of a campaign, because when donors text in, they are still using one of their own “text units” to contribute. “The Mobile Giving Foundation convinced the carriers that this was the right thing to do,” Asheim said. “It’s in the best interest of the charities.”

While the Salvation Army is not yet on board, Hood said he is hopeful that mobile campaigning will be a part of its future fundraising efforts. “We have every intention of developing the channel, but we have to find a contract we are willing to sign,” he said. “We haven’t hit gold yet.”  NPT