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Why the lackluster mobile giving for Japan’s crises?

April 25, 2011

Vanessa Horwell is chief visibility officer of ThinkInk

Vanessa Horwell is chief visibility officer of ThinkInk

By Vanessa Horwell

Last year, when Haiti was struck by a devastating earthquake, solicitations for donations via SMS were everywhere.

Every Red Cross commercial featured both the Web site and the short code for mobile giving. The 90999 short code was plastered all over the televised benefit concert. The news media – as well as the nonprofit community – was abuzz with this new channel for charitable donations.

Times have changed – slightly.

As the crises surrounding the recent earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan unfold, mobile giving has not been quite as prevalent as it was just a year ago for Haiti.

The Red Cross television commercials no longer trumpet their dedicated short code.

A Google search of news articles relating to SMS donations and Japan turns up only a few pages of results – and none focusing exclusively on mobile giving.

Individuals can still contribute to the relief effort via text, but neither the wireless carriers nor the organizations soliciting donations feel the need to tout their capacity to receive contributions via this channel like they did last year.

The preliminary numbers reflect this trend.

As of March 15, the Red Cross has raised a total of $1.7 million for relief efforts in Japan through text donations, compared with $25 million in the first five days after the Haiti earthquake.

The Center on Philanthropy suggests that the generally lower amount of the average text donation has dragged the total raised by the channel down somewhat.

But more to the point, The Nonprofit Times acknowledges that while mobile giving has “been active after this most recent disaster, it’s not been nearly as viral.”

So what gives? Or this case, what does not give? Why the slowdown in mobile donations? Should not a donation channel that is supposedly well-established, convenient and effective be enjoying more importance, not less?

A number of factors go into answering those questions.

More charities, more short codes
First, it is important to understand that the popularity of mobile giving among nonprofits skyrocketed in the months following Haiti.

Nonprofit organizations across the world made the necessary investments to open up this donation channel for their contributors, and for the general public.

It made sense: mobile is cost-effective, broad, and innovative. It narrows the gap between the urge to give and the act of giving. And it worked exceptionally well post-Haiti.

But the subsequent proliferation then means that now, post-Japan, there is a plethora of organizations equipped to handle text donations.

It also means that potential donors are confronted with a dizzying array of options, which has diminished the clarity of purpose enjoyed by the Red Cross just a year ago.

Verizon Wireless lists no fewer than 11 organizations for subscribers to text a donation. The Mobile Giving Foundation lists eight more.

While it may be too reactionary to say that this spectrum of organizations confuses individuals, it certainly diffuses and, one might argue dilutes, the cumulative effect of mobile giving.

No longer new
Mobile giving is also fighting against its establishment as a legitimate donation channel.

In 2010, mobile was not new, but the possibility of helping victims of the Haiti earthquake by sending a simple text message was new to most people.

Today, that newness has worn off.

Mobile giving is no longer the bleeding-edge method it was a year ago, when it claimed a 14 percent share of all American donations to Haiti, (Pew Research, 2010).

Without this attention-grabbing newness, individuals are turning toward more traditional channels again, such as online.

Concerns about hidden costs
Another factor that may be influencing the wane in text donations this year is a latent concern about where the donations are going and how they are apportioned.

The technological process behind accepting text donations can be beyond some nonprofits’ expertise, and the fees that these organizations pay the technology companies to install this capability can sometimes render the donations themselves less effective.

The Vancouver Sun reported that some Canadian nonprofits are paying 3.9 percent per mobile giving transaction.

Potential donors, particularly those moved by an acute tragedy such as the earthquake in Japan, may bristle at the thought of such a large percentage of their texted contributions being routed to administrative costs.

There is some fallacy in this – administration costs are a fact of life for nonprofits, irrespective of giving channel. Even hand-delivering cash or a check incurs some costs for the nonprofit – but it can help to explain some of the sentiment behind the dip in visibility of mobile giving.

Sign of the times?
At the risk of inferring too much from a phenomenon with too many variables, the decline in prominence of mobile giving this year could reflect a larger trend in the mobile universe, like a move away from the dominant mobile aspects of years past – voice, SMS and applications, chronologically – and toward the mobile Web.

SMS connectivity, once the end-all and be-all of mobile marketing, is on the wane.

The mobile Web, on the other hand, is rising.

Native apps, currently the best practice in terms of mobile marketing, are quickly giving way to apps, devices and Web sites that are optimized for the mobile Web.

So it is possible, then, that charitable donors are making this transition as well, preferring to give through the Web access on their smartphones rather than dialing into the designated short code and having their donations added to their monthly mobile bill.

There is no single reason that mobile giving has faded from prominence in the wake of the Japan disaster and, in fact, there is no guarantee that it will not experience a resurgence as the crisis continues.

But certainly these four factors – the proliferation of charities engaging in mobile donation campaigns, the fact that mobile giving is not the latest trend, ongoing concerns about the cost of mobile giving initiatives to nonprofits and the supervening of the mobile Web over SMS communication – have all contributed to altering the mobile giving landscape.

With the next event that mobilizes the world’s nonprofits, there may be a wholly different channel for contributions to come through. We will not know until it happens.

But at the end of the day, as long as the contributions are coming in and going to aid victims, that is all that truly matters.

Vanessa Horwell is chief visibility officer of ThinkInk, Miami Beach, FL. Reach her at

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