In Haiti, Red Cross, Wyclef Jean change charity a text at a time

Charities including the American Red Cross and hip-hop singer Wyclef Jean's Yéle Haiti have raised millions of dollars for earthquake relief through texted donations.

By , Correspondent

Response to the earthquake in Haiti is marking the emergence of texting as a major force in philanthropy, as Americans turn to their cellphones to donate millions of dollars to relief.

American Red Cross social media manager Wendy Harman said Wednesday: “We’ve utterly shattered our record today."

The Red Cross raised more than $3 million through SMS donations as of Thursday morning. It raised $190,000 through SMS donations in all of 2009.

Recommended: Where does Haiti stand three years after its 7.0 earthquake?

“If today is any indication, I think mobile giving has a lot of potential,” says Ms. Harman.

The efforts of the Red Cross as well as hip-hop star Wyclef Jean's Yéle Haiti charity have, perhaps for the first time, fully demonstrated how SMS donations can reshape charitable organizations’ drive for money.

“My guess is this [Haiti earthquake] becomes an inflection point when large charities will begin to sign up and act,” says Jim Manis, chairman of the Mobile Giving Foundation, who helped pioneer the concept of SMS fundraising in 2004.

Who to text to help Haiti earthquake victims

The Red Cross is taking $10 donations to its Haiti relief efforts from donors who text "HAITI" to "90999." Mr. Jean's Yéle Haiti charity is asking donors to text “YELE” to 501501 for a $5 donation toward earthquake relief efforts. The donations are added to your cellphone bill.

Mr. Manis notes that he has been approached by about 10 charities eager to sign up for the mobile giving service.

The reasons are clear. Estimates suggest more than 280 million Americans use cellphones. Americans sent a total of more than 600 billion text messages from June 2007 to June 2008, according to The Chronicle of Philanthropy.

“The immediacy of technology solves the frustration of how to help,” says Manis. “It’s immediate gratification.”

Mobile giving is especially attractive in natural disasters because it can be set up quickly and donors can give immediately. It also allows charities to expand their donor base and reach out to new demographics like youths.

“Everyone’s looking at mobile technology as the next big thing that will transform how charities operate,” says Stacy Palmer, editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. “Mobile’s so versatile, anyone can do it anywhere. It allows someone to see a problem and deal with it right away, fast.”

For some charities, SMS is small potatoes

But not everyone is on board. Many large charities are efficient fundraisers, reluctant to join the trend because the $5 and $10 donations allowed through mobile giving are too small to make an impact in their fundraising goals.

Some donors are also wary of scams and ancillary fees. Disasters bring out the best and worst in people, and scammers often prey on concerned donors after natural disasters.

Name recognition is the easiest way to avoid a scam, say experts. The Red Cross and Yéle Haiti are two of the most well known charities working in Haiti. And donors should always do due diligence. The Charity Navigator evaluates more than 5,000 of the country’s largest charities and warns donors of questionable charities.

Manis says he expects to work with as many as 1,800 charities next year and will raise as much as $11.5 million, according to the Chronicle for Philanthropy.

“We’ll continue to see new applications in mobile giving in the future,” he says. “We’ll see a lot of use of mobile functionality not just in raising funds, but in sharing the impact of donation. It encourages action, then shows people what that action means.”

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