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Story by Clark Boyd, PRI's "The World"
One thing that the ongoing relief effort in Haiti requires is money. And lots of it. US aid groups like the American Red Cross are asking folks to reach into their pockets to help. But they’re not necessarily asking them to reach for their wallets. Instead, they’re offering a service where mobile phone users can simply send a text message to make their donations.
Just hours after the earthquake hit Haiti, the American Red Cross stepped up its fundraising campaign. There were the usual ways to give money: By check or by credit card over the phone or web. But there was also another option: You could donate ten bucks by sending a short text message on your cell phone.
"It's the first time we've ever done anything like this, and the response has been really great," said. Gloria Huang, a Red Cross spokesperson.
Great might be an understatement. The text campaign was highlighted by the State Department. Social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook spread news of the campaign rapidly. Most mobile carriers agreed to waive the fees normally associated for sending text messages.
It probably didn't hurt that musician Wyclef Jean, himself a native Haitian, also launched a text campaign for his Yele Haiti Foundation. It's raised more than one million dollars since the night of the earthquake.
The Red Cross says nearly half of the donations its received have come by text -- more than seven million dollars.
Katrin Verclas is the director of MobileActive.org, a website focused on the use of mobile technology for social change. She says one of the reasons the Red Cross campaign is popular is that people think it's easy and immediate.
"They text, and in this case the key word 'Haiti,' to a short code which is a five-digit number. And then they will be asked essentially to confirm the $5 or $10 dollar contribution," said Verclas. "And then at the end of the month when they receive their bill, there will be a charge in the amount of $5 or $10 dollars that the customer pays as part of their regular phone bill."
US aid groups, Verclas says, are using what they learn from European groups after the Indian Ocean tsunami five years ago.
"In the aftermath of the tsunami ... UK, Spanish, Italian aid organizations raised millions," said Verclas. "I think in Spain it was $5.9 million dollars in 24 hours after the tsunami, all raised by SMS. US aid organizations were, in 2004, absolutely not on the bandwagon ... and they're now waking up. Which is good, it's about time."
Beth Cantor is a seasoned fundraiser. She's also the co-author of the upcoming book,"The Networked Nonprofit." She says it's not just American aid groups waking up to the power of cell phones, it's Americans themselves.
"I don't think we're as much of a cell phone culture, at least several years ago, as people were in Europe or Asia," said Cantor.
She says that text message donation campaigns will become a powerful tool for US aid groups, almost like a first-responder fundraising strategy.
Still, there are some drawbacks, both for aid groups and would-be givers. The top contribution amount allowed in the US is currently only $10 dollars, although some groups let you donate multiple times.
Katrin Verclas of MobileActive.org also notes that it can take up to 90 days from the time you make your text donation for the money to actually reach the designated aid group.
"I still would encourage anybody to donate online just because the organization gets the amount, the money and the information, much faster and the charges are just less."
And Verclas says, like with any donation, make sure the organization you're giving to via text message is a legitimate one.
PRI's "The World" is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. "The World" is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More "The World."