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Haiti: The SMS donation tipping point

By Alan Pascoe

The charitable response to Haiti earthquake relief efforts has shown the best of people?s generosity and their urgency to meet survivors? needs. 

This outpouring has also revealed the best of telecommunications companies, which have expedited donations to organizations, eliminated surcharges to subscribers and charities, and revealed the power of SMS donations.

The numbers are staggering.

The American Red Cross alone had collected more than $25 million through $10 text donations.

During National Football League games on Jan. 16-17, the Red Cross said text-message donations reached $500,000 an hour.

Also, the Mobile Giving Foundation processed up to 10,000 text messages per second at peak giving times in the earthquake?s aftermath.

So far, more than $35 million have been collected through SMS donations.

Text donations here to stay
The technology story behind the humanitarian and financial stories is that SMS-based donations have unequivocally arrived. Nonprofit campaigns will now make mobile giving as routine as phone and online donations for several reasons.

First, text-based donations are the perfect way to engage many contributors. This method eliminates the need to disclose financial or personal data, providing an inherent trust in the system about identity theft or being placed on yet another marketing list.

SMS also is the fastest course of action. A donor spends less than 30 seconds to contribute, without enduring telephone hold times or having to complete an online form.

Moreover, billing is accurate, with the amount pre-determined and the process using wireless carriers? infrastructure.

In addition, organizations can see immediate results from their campaigns. 

Many donors respond immediately to aid requests. 

For example, public service announcements aired on Fox, CBS and national radio broadcasts before and during NFL playoff games, and on the NFL Network and ESPN pregame shows, driving the $500,000 hourly results. 

Marketers dream of that level of correlation between their message and the results.

Fine-tuning needed
As with most new systems, some improvements are needed. Carriers are already addressing the first: shrinking the pass-through window to more quickly deliver money to charities.

Though this typically is a 90-day gap, many carriers have sent money immediately to the Red Cross and other relief agencies due to the urgent need. Long term, however, this window needs to shrink to no more than a 45-day processing timeframe.

Another hiccup that arose was the difficulty that some prepaid users experienced in making a donation, even if they carried a sufficient balance.

Because premium text messages fall under a separate billing category, some subscribers have been blocked from contributing. 

Next steps
The Haiti texting relief efforts have set a precedent for future giving. 

The impressive collections, rapid distribution and ease of use will benefit the Red Cross and all organizations relying on donations for years to come. 

Furthermore, this will also jump-start other groups to unite around specific causes. 

Political parties will raise funds for candidates, sports teams can solicit donations for their sponsored charities with in-stadium ads, and universities can include texting as part of their next fundraising activities. 

As Haiti donations have shown, a timely need combined with an easy way to donate equals dramatic results.

Alan Pascoe is senior manager of product marketing at Tekelec, Morrisville, NC. Reach him at .