Texting Isn’t All About Giving

September 15, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

When disaster strikes these days, lots of donors don’t think twice before whipping out their cell phones and donating $5 or $10 via text message. Vast amounts of money were raised via text when an earthquake struck Haiti in 2010, and again this past spring when an earthquake and tsunami devastated Japan.

But outside of the disasters and the large organizations that collect most of the donations, does text messaging do much for smaller charities? Are you asking yourself whether your charity should be on the mobile bandwagon — or whether it already has missed the boat?

In 2008, approximately $250,000 was raised through mobile channels, and in 2009 that number more than quadrupled to $1.3 million, according to the mGive Foundation. But then came the Haiti earthquake and almost $50 million was raised by text, the majority by the American Red Cross. If you’re a small, or even average-sized nonprofit, you might be asking yourself, “Well, that’s the Red Cross. We can’t raise $50 million by text, so why should we both with that channel?”

Bridge Communities used text messaging to raise money during two events last year, including its Sleep Out Saturday. During the event each November, participants are encouraged to spend a night outdoors, experiencing what it’s like to be homeless, sleeping in sleeping bags, tents or even cardboard boxes.

Although just a tiny fraction of the overall $123,000 raised came from text giving, the social service agency in the Chicago suburb of Glen Ellyn, Ill., has only just begun experimenting with mobile giving. Participants in Sleep Out Saturday could text the word “Bridge” to 2022 to donate, and last year raised a little more than $1,000, according to Amy Van Polen, resource development director. About $1.5 million of its annual $2.5 million budget is from contributions and grants.

Van Polen said Bridge has a couple of different events throughout the year in which the audience and format might appeal to someone who would be interested in or familiar with text giving. A rally that generally attracts about 1,000 people, also primarily young people 20 and under, also might work for a text-to-give campaign, she said.

Events geared toward young professionals who are likely to have a smart phone on their hip — while not competing with other fundraisers like silent auctions or raffles – were targeted for Bridge’s text giving experiments.

While the organization was happy to cover its costs in the first year, Van Polen said the goal this year will be to raise $4,000 by text, promoting it in connection with three of its events.

“It’s really important for a nonprofit that’s not crisis driven to determine, do we want to do this type of fundraising because you’re not going to have the impact of a big crisis,” she said. “Do you want to add it as another layer, something for people to talk about during and after an event? Does it fit into who is your audience that’s there,” Van Polen said. “I thought the audience and format of our events could appeal to people who are familiar with text to give,” she said.

It’s important that charities determine what their ultimate goals are with text giving: is it financial or marketing, and how to integrate both into the event, Van Polen said. “If your goal is to raise lot of money, there are ways to do that outside of text. But if you want to add another layer to your event, bringing in some revenue, then I’d encourage small organizations like ours to do it,” said Van Polen.

“There’s a certain amount of fundraising capital you can spend or buy from any particular donor,” said Van Polen, adding that she’s always thinking about how to develop the relationship. But in text campaigns, there’s no way to do that. “It’s really thinking about what are your goals. Are your goals to add a new dynamic or develop the relationship, because you’re not able to continue that relationship? You don’t get information from the donor, or anything that allows you to continue with leading to that next gift, moving them up the pyramid,” she said.

A critical question for nonprofits is where this fits into the organization. “Is it just something interesting to add revenue, or is this the basis for what I’m trying to do,” Van Polen asked.

Alliance for Climate Education (ACE) doesn’t raise money through texting, given that its demographic is teens. “For us, it’s a platform to connect with students,” said Matt Stewart, head of marketing for Oakland-based ACE, which barnstorms the country talking about science and presenting information about climate change at high school assemblies. “We try to make it interesting and fun, to make it stick,” said Stewart, with a multimedia presentation that talks about farting cows and dying dinosaurs.

At the end of each assembly, students are asked to participate in the dot campaign — promising to do one thing to help the climate – and text their donation to 30644, even though some schools don’t allow them to text. “We’re talking to a lot of people. We’ve reached 750,000 students at 1,300 high schools across the country in under two years,” said Stewart.

“Dealing with the high school demographic, we’ve found they’re not on email but definitely texting,” he said, adding that it’s estimated that teens send or receive more than 3,000 text messages a month. Once a student texts their dot, they receive a series of texts from ACE in the following weeks to encourage them to stick with it and join an action team. They are also asked for their email address and ZIP code, to better target the communications.

ACE culled its mobile list earlier this year and now has about 14,000 remaining. “That’s pretty good for someone you saw once, and it takes them to proactively do it,” Stewart said. “It’s kind of a letdown after we leave,” he said so they keep communication going by email as well. But students don’t necessarily read their emails so ACE aims to prompt them with a reminder by text, sometimes times an hour before an action team meeting. Texts also are used to spark conversation and keep students interested in their project.

Everyone reads their text messages because they’re short enough to read quickly, making them effective as reminders to get people to do things, such as opening emails.

“We’ve got to keep it going after we leave,” said Stewart, and auto-texts are a great way to do it. “We found that students don’t necessarily read their email unless they get a text to read it, so we try to pair them the best we can,” he said.

“It’s a huge weapon because people actually read their texts; that’s the number one thing,” Stewart said. At the same time, the downside to texts is that they can’t say much — but at least they’re reading it. “It gets us a little mental space and helps us help them stay on track with our program,” Stewart said.

Without the exposure to a large, broad-based set of donors, though, fundraising via text might not be worth it. “We entertain doing texting but didn’t fundraise because the fees were prohibitive unless numbers get up,” Stewart said, which is why it makes sense during large-scale events like Haiti or Japan.

“We need to understand how and why, other than it was a catastrophe with compelling imagery in the media, why that campaign was so effective, why it shook the industry and donors awake,” said Jennifer Snyder, executive director of the mGive Foundation, Denver, Colo.

“Our theory seems to be, every nonprofit needs to have mobile integrated in mobile engagement campaigns,” said Snyder, adding that it’s a new way to capture a new audience. A majority of donors giving are saying that when they give through mobile, it doesn’t impede or dissuade them from giving online, by direct mail or by telephone, she said.

“Whether or not mobile giving is effective for your charity now, communicating with donors and supporters is absolutely what you should be doing,” Snyder said, adding that some 85 percent of text messages are read within 15 minutes of receipt and open rates can be close to 10 percent.

The Salvation Army raised $13,000 on Thanksgiving Day last year through a text campaign that was incorporated into the holiday’s National Football League game broadcast. That total was more than half of the $25,000 the campaign raised during the course of the holiday season.

Some organizations don’t focus as much on mobile donations as much as they do mobile communications so their goal is to develop and cultivate new supporters, Snyder said. They might send one message a month or one per quarter to constituents before making an ask.

“We’ve learned that online, the more personal the message to the donor, the greater chance to receive a gift, and the greater amount that gift will be. Incorporate the same learning into mobile channels. If you can do that, you can be leaps and bounds ahead of mobile channels, and growth can be exponentially increased,” Snyder said.

The foundation’s goal is to continue cultivating the mobile channel, Snyder said. “We’re trying to forge mobile giving 2.0, parse out how disaster relief might be different and apply mobile strategy to different sized organizations,” she said.

It’s important that nonprofits understand technology and integrate successful tool sets, said Snyder, because mobile phones are outperforming personal computers for response as the number of mobile subscribers grows.

During a four-month fundraising campaign last year, called Support Our Shelves, the Brooklyn Public Library in New York City introduced texting as a new way to collect donations, primarily from non-users. Only a fraction of the fundraising goal (more than $300,000) was from text donations. But, the library sent additional messages once text donors were identified, encouraging them to opt-in to e-newsletters or visit the website.

The library still uses texting as an account service, such as notifications of book availability, overdue books or holds, but not text donations. There are no immediate plans to reintroduce text donations, according to Jason Carey, director of marketing and communications. But, last year’s campaign “gave us some good insight into how people actually use text donations and what kind of message can generate a good response,” he said.

A key lesson learned, said Carey, is that the public needs to have a strong sense of urgency to use texting to donate. It’s an easy mechanism to use, but the person using it really has to get the immediacy of the need, like a natural disaster, he said. “To really drive donations via text, an organization would really need a very strategic integration of advertising, PR efforts and other advocacy events.”

Kaptivate, an Alexandria, Va.-based consulting firm, last spring released survey results of 162 nonprofits and their adoption of mobile giving. Only about 10 percent of respondents were considered “early adopters” of mobile technology.

More than one-third of respondents expect to deploy mobile giving during the next year and that jumps to half when extended to two years. Some 49 percent had a “strong” or “very high” interest in mobile fundraising. While nonprofits are willing to explore mobile giving, about 30 percent are afraid they’re too small to do it. Almost half of respondents see mobile giving options as “lacking the ability to cultivate donors.” A dearth of information “has reinforced resistance to the mobile channel,” according to the study. Among the main concerns raised by respondents were added demands on already limited resources (40 percent); prove to be an expensive channel (34 percent); and not a good fit with existing donors (28 percent). NPT