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American Red Cross adjusts mobile giving strategy post-Haiti

February 17, 2011

The Red Cross has SMS initiatives, a mobile Web site and apps

WASHINGTON – The American Red Cross drove 7 percent of all funds benefiting Haiti earthquake victims via mobile – more than $32 million – and an executive discussed the organization’s increasing focus on mobile at Nonprofit Mobile Day.

The American Red Cross has evolved and continues to change its mobile strategy, integrating mobile into its multichannel marketing activities. A large part of the story is the Text HAITI to 90999 program and how the organization was able to turn Americans’ compassion into action via text-message donations. 

“The American Red Cross is always looking for innovative ways to engage with the public and invite them to support our cause,” said Joshua Kittner, senior marketing consultant of digital engagement at American Red Cross, Washington. “We recognized that mobile technology was dramatically changing how consumers interact with brands like the American Red Cross and how pervasive mobile is.

“We created a working group in 2009 of people across the organization to build a mobile marketing strategy, and brought in trusted extended partners who were mobile industry veterans,” he said. “From the start, we knew text messaging would be a key element of our strategy as it has the most reach of any wireless service used by consumers.

“When the devastating earthquake struck in Haiti, the working group was prepared to quickly move into action.”

The session was moderated by Joy Liuzzo, senior director of mobile research at InsightExpress, Washington.

Mobile giving game-changer
The U.S. State Department, working with mGive, encouraged the creation of the Text Haiti program.

MGive reached out to the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association to discuss the program, and based on the Red Cross’s long-standing relationship with CTIA, the American Red Cross was recommended as the partner nonprofit.

The Text HAITI to 90999 program was live and operational within hours of the earthquake, per Mr. Kittner.

Wireless carriers that supported the program waived text messaging fees, advanced funds for the relief efforts, promoted the program online and on mobile Web banners, and fielded customer-care calls from their subscribers.

Cable news and social media immediately got the word out to donate $10, and word of the mobile giving initiative spread rapidly, particularly on Twitter.

In the first 48 hours there were 2.3 million tweets about “Haiti” and the “Red Cross,” of which 59 percent were retweets, per Mr. Kittner.

There were telethons on CNN and MTV issuing the mobile call-to-action.

The American Red Cross also reached out to the National Football League, which included promotions for text Haiti and aired their own public service announcements during playoff games.

“The NFL had a big impact,” Mr. Kittner said. “We saw huge spikes in text donations, reaching an all time record of more than $500,000 in a single hour during their playoff game.”

First Lady Michelle Obama and celebrities such as Julia Roberts and Zoe Saldana filmed public service announcements urging people to text donations to the American Red Cross.

Mobile donors received these messages from the Red Cross after they made a donation using their mobile phones. They were asked to confirm their donation, given the option to seek help and asked to opt in to future text messages from the organization.

“We strive to provide interesting, timely, useful information to our mobile opt-in list,” Mr. Kittner said.

“We illustrated compelling examples of how their $10 donations are being used on the ground—3 million meals served and 80,000-plus patients treated at Red Cross hospitals and clinics in Haiti,” he said.

The Red Cross also asked for email addresses for those who are interested in more in-depth online updates and in some cases, the organization provides its Twitter information.

The Haiti mobile giving initiative brought in more than $32 million, approximately 7 percent of total funds raised.

“Even offline people held texting parties and wanted to compete for most text funds raised at community events,” Mr. Kittner said.

Transition to post-Haiti
The impact and lessons of mobile from Haiti, both from a fundraising and service-delivery perspective, has helped the Red Cross to better see and appreciate the near term and future potential of this channel, per Mr. Kittner.

“At the Red Cross, we will continue to be innovative in the ways that we provide value back to our constituents that choose to opt-in to our messaging or donate via SMS,” Mr. Kittner said. “Many of our donors want to have a deeper relationship with the Red Cross and we need to keep the dialogue relevant, informative and engaging with our donors and supporters not only during times of disaster, but throughout the year.

“We’re also looking into how we can use SMS and other mobile technologies to deliver services to the public,” he said.

Some of the other uses that the Red Cross has piloted include blood program communications, health and safety tips to the Haitian people and SMS delivery notification of cash grants under a $50 million program to give cash grants of approximately $125 to up to 400,000 Haitian families over the next several months to buy food, supplies and other necessities.

“So we have seen SMS being used as both a channel for compassion through donations, and a mechanism to deliver help and hope,” Mr. Kittner said.

Following Text Haiti, the organization also wanted to be able to provide the public an outlet to support all of the work that the Red Cross does.

Therefore, it established the Text REDCROSS to 90999 initiative, which again enabled $10 donations.

With Text REDCROSS, a similar pattern occurred to Haiti, in that disasters were the primary driver of donations as people are waiting to help instantaneously, per Mr. Kittner.

A challenge for the Red Cross is that in non-disaster situations, it needs to find ways to make mobile giving a compelling choice for the public so that campaign costs remain low in comparison to the value that mobile giving provides to fulfill its mission.

Text GIFT was a trial that the organization participated in that allowed $25 donations, which Mr. Kittner said it was pleased with.

While the Red Cross has seen greater public participation at lower dollar amounts, when used with its opt-in audience, it has seen more effective fundraising.

Higher-dollar amounts for on-carrier billing and consumer adoption of one-click payment methods are necessary for mobile to equal other online channels, per Mr. Kittner.

One question Mr. Kittner gets asked a lot is “Does texting cannibalize larger donations that people might have made through traditional methods?” It is a difficult question.

“We know texting has brought new donors to the Red Cross and many also went online to make additional contributions,” Mr. Kittner said. “Right now, we don’t think there has been significant cannibalization, but it is a key question for us going forward.

“In addition to SMS, we have also begun implementing mobile Web optimization, which provides our users with access to a few of the more popular pages on our Web site,” he said.

The Red Cross has also made forays into mobile advertising, most recently during its end-of-year holiday campaign that featured text ads within applications, which linked to a mobile landing page.

“In terms of a Red Cross Mobile application, we are exploring that option, but text and the mobile Web are of a higher priority at this point, based upon reach and democracy,” Mr. Kittner said. “SMS is very democratic—almost everyone can send and receive text messages.

“Mobile Web is next in terms of availability and ease of discovery—simply type in into a browser,” he said. “Apps require more effort from the public to discover.

“We’re being a bit more cautious to make sure that we deliver experiences that the public and our supporters want from the Red Cross.”

Ms. Liuzzo

Mr. Kittner

The audience at Nonprofit Mobile Day

Final Take
Mr. Kittner

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Dan Butcher is associate editor on Mobile Commerce Daily and Mobile Marketer. Reach him at

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