In 2008, United Way bought a sliver of airtime during Super Bowl XLII for an ad highlighting the charity's youth fitness initiative. By the high-gloss standards of Super Bowl spots, this one was pretty spare: 10 seconds of black and white animation, a sobering statistic on childhood obesity, and an exhortation from New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. Unlike most televised appeals, United Way did not list a hot line number. Instead, the charity asked viewers to pick up their cellphone and send the word "FIT" to a six-digit number; for each text message received, the viewer's cellphone would debit $5 from his or her account.
At the time, text-message giving was considered problematic. Any group interested in soliciting donations via text would need to negotiate, simultaneously, with a wide range of cellphone carriers. Red tape abounded. "It was extremely challenging," says James Eberhard, the chairman of Mobile Accord, which acts as a conduit between carriers and charities. "You needed that big event – that Trojan horse – that would convince them that this could work."
With the United Way ad, Mobile Accord believed it had found that Trojan horse. So did the carriers, who signed on in droves. The Super Bowl spot raised $10,000 – not exactly a seismic haul, but a solid showing for an ad that lasted all of 10 seconds. "We never really expected to do big numbers," Mr. Eberhard says. "We expected to open up the industry. And that was the genesis."
Over the past two years, text giving, which once represented only a tiny portion of overall donations in the United States, has quickly became a major component of many successful philanthropic campaigns. Nonprofits have adopted the technology as a way to collect small donations from a large pool of givers; groups such as the Red Cross have launched major campaigns. Analysts say that text message donations are a good match for the pace of 21st-century life: The process is fast, simple, and requires nothing more than a device that most Americans have in their pockets.
"We have 260 million cellphones in the US," says Christian Zimmern, a cofounder and vice-president of the nonprofit Mobile Giving Foundation. "The nice thing about mobile giving is that anyone can do it. If you want to use [the online pay system] PayPal for a donation, you have to be a PayPal member. With SMS [text-message] donations, everyone that has a cellphone can do it. You don't need to have a credit card. You just need your phone." Furthermore, Mr. Zimmern points out, younger Americans – a demographic less likely to give through traditional means – are more than happy to tap out a quick donation on their keypad or touch screen.
A major landmark for text donations arrived in January, when a massive earthquake ripped through Haiti. With the help of Mobile Accord and the Mobile Giving Foundation, the Red Cross raised an estimated $30 million through text message donations alone. A survey from Cone, a Boston-based marketing firm, showed that 13 percent of Americans made a text donation for relief efforts in Haiti, compared with the 6 percent of Americans who made a text message donation of any kind in the previous year. A full 19 percent of Americans told Cone that they would rather text a donation to a nonprofit than make a donation in any other way.
"Haiti has made a huge change for us and the whole industry by putting text message donations on the radar of every major charity in the US," Mr. Zimmern says. "Before, people would say, 'We're not sure if this is for us,' and now everyone is jumping on the bandwagon."
Building a text message campaign, however, is a relatively complicated process. In most cases, a charity must first approach a middleman, such as the Mobile Giving Foundation, which is based in Washington State. The MGF will vet the charity to make sure it meets a range of criteria, including minimum revenue stream and good standing with the Better Business Bureau. If the organization is approved, the MGF works with US carriers to set up a fund-raising campaign; consumers are encouraged to text donations to a predetermined number. The carriers pass those funds to the MGF, which in turn hands over the money to the charity. The carriers do not levy a surcharge on the donors, but organizations are charged by the MGF for some incidental costs.
Even after all these hurdles, there remains much debate about how organizations should actually use texting. Some critics have argued that by relying too heavily on text donations, charities lose a chance to have a relationship with donors.
Allison Fine, the author of "Momentum: Igniting Social Change in the Connected Age," recently wrote on her website that she was concerned about text message giving. "It's certainly not a panacea, and may be best used as part of an immediate crisis or disaster responses," Ms. Fine noted. "However, it may not be as useful when the initial crisis begins to wane.… It seems to me that relationship building with a first engagement being a cellphone number is going to be inherently difficult."
Proponents of text message philanthropy argue that organizations can maintain a relationship with donors by sending them additional texts, or by asking the donors to sign up for an e-mail list. "A lot of traffic comes through your e-mail inbox," says Eberhard of Mobile Accord. "It's hard to keep up with all those e-mails. You don't have the same problem with text messaging – almost every text message you get you're going to read. It's a way to hit people." But others say that charities could run into a spam problem if they send out too many texts, causing users to simply pass over SMS messages the same way they pass over junk e-mail. "That's something none of us want," Zimmern says. "The carriers certainly don't want it. We don't want it. Consumers don't want it."
For now, text message donations resemble online giving at the close of the 20th century, argues Nicole Wallace, a senior writer at the Chronicle of Philanthropy. The technology is relatively new, and organizations are working hard to figure out the best way to harness it. "I think the prevailing wisdom among fund-raising types is that text messages seem to work best when there's a pressing issue," Ms. Wallace says. "The question is whether there's a way to translate that into nondisaster giving, like a local social arts group, or a smaller nonprofit. That will be the test."