Cell Phone Fundraising

There you are walking down Lake Shore Drive past the rising Chicago Spire building eating a Chicago Red Hot, when you’re struck by a billboard with a message from, say, MercyCorps, asking for help providing relief to the cyclone-battered people in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy delta. But the sign doesn’t feature a website URL, a toll-free telephone number or even an address to send a check. Instead the sign tells you to text the word ‘Give’ to a number using your cell phone and a $5 donation will be made.

To the Japanese or Europeans that scenario probably sounds not so much futuristic as so 2006.

But it’s new in the United States, made possible by lower fees from the cell phone carriers. If analysts are correct, cell phone fundraising may be a prominent future fundraising channel for charities with a clear mission, strong brand recognition and the ability to effectively get their message to their audience.

What’s the potential upside of this mobile phone fundraising in the United States?

“$100 million was raised via SMS for Tsunami relief across EU and Asia,” says Tony Aiello, SVP of Mobile Accord in Denver, owner of mGive, an early leader in the field which provides the service. “Live 8 raised $2 million pounds in 2 weeks via SMS. There are many examples but due to the fractionalized nature of the international market it is hard to get totals. That said the giving market in the US dwarfs all other countries.”

Here’s how it works: when you text the number, $5 is added to your phone’s bill. The Mobile Giving Foundation in Seattle takes 10 percent as a fee and the rest goes to the designated charity. There’s no taxes or usage fees assessed against the donation although standard messaging rates may apply depending on your carrier and service plan.

mGive only allows registered 501(c)(3) charities to participate. They charge a $100 setup fee and $250 a month.

That $5 donation is the per transaction limit set by the carriers. But Aiello expects they will increase it in time. You could increase it all by yourself. For instance, if you wanted to make a $25 donation just text the number five separate times. Monthly automatic recurring donations are already built into mGive's system and should be available before the end of the year.

What media channels work best? Aiello says live events, and social networks are the early leaders. Radio and TV are also used. But the fact is, if your charity takes the plunge, you may as well put it on everything you produce from your website to your business cards. The technology makes it easy to for sophisticated charities to test different media channels and calls to action.

I see several cause-related marketing possibilities.
  1. Charities that do paper icon campaigns could add a sentence or two on the back of their icon asking people to add an extra $5 donation.

  2. For charities that host events with plenty of signage, you could dedicate some of it to advertising to the new donation channel.

  3. I can even imagine a gala type setting whereby the host would shame people into making a donation. She might say, "Please turn off your cell phones, but if you absolutely must leave them on, we invite you to 'pay' for that privilege by texting the word 'gala' to this number. $5 will be added to your cell phone bill. Thereby if your phone rings during the gala and you rush out, people won't think you're rude. They'll think you just gave $5 to the cause."
  4. Charities could loan out their codes to sponsors to put on their materials.

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