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SMS Donations Worked for Red Cross in Haiti, Not for Everyone Else

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When a massive earthquake struck Haiti last this year, the Red Cross managed to collect a total of $30 million in donations sent via text message. Since then, many other nonprofit organizations have tried to incorporate the Red Cross's SMS approach into their business models, but, as the New York Times reports, few have been able to do so successfully.

The biggest hurdle most nonprofits face is an all too familiar one: money. SMS campaigns may seem relatively simple, but marketing them effectively can often require substantial investment. In Haiti, the Red Cross benefited from highly visible endorsements from the likes of Michelle Obama and the NFL -- a luxury that very few nonprofits can afford. Even obtaining a five-digit short code, like 'HAITI,' can cost up to $12,000.

The Red Cross's involvement in Haiti was also unique because it was founded in desperate urgency. Aid workers needed money, and they needed it fast. Nonprofits devoted to more persistent, long-term causes, however, have found it difficult to arouse the same kind of instantaneous response from mobile donors. Suzy Twohig, the director of donor relations at Share Our Strength, told the Times, "The Red Crosses of the world have the urgency of 'now.'" Twohig's nonprofit, which is devoted to fighting childhood hunger, had to "[throw] a lot of spaghetti at the wall" to find the right mix of Web marketing, public service announcements and internal campaigns. "The challenge for other organizations is to figure out what the 'now' message is, and get people to experience that same sense of urgency."

Even the Red Cross has struggled to replicate the success of its Haiti campaign. Although the organization managed to pull together $250,000 in mobile donations after the May floods in Tennessee, it hasn't found a way to successfully adapt the program to non-disaster related contexts. Much of the difficulty lies in the inherently limited nature of mobile campaigns; nonprofits are only allowed to gather personal information on mobile donors if the donors expressly agree to it, making it difficult for organizations to compile donor databases for follow-up correspondence.

Some, however, see this intrinsic confidentiality as a strong selling-point for mobile donation drives, and an aspect that may attract more privacy-conscious donors. And there's no denying that SMS-based campaigns provide uniquely direct contact with younger, more connected generations. As many nonprofits have discovered, though, the Red Cross's blueprint can't be easily followed, and it certainly can't guarantee windfall donations. "When nonprofits smell money, they tend to jump on the bandwagon without thinking it through," said Katrin Verclas, co-founder of MobileActive, a nonprofit mobile network aimed at advancing social welfare. "Mobile giving isn't a magic bullet. It's just one of many tools nonprofits can use."

Tags: cellphone, charity, disasterrelief, donation, haiti, HaitiEarthquake, HaitiRelief, money, NonProfit, RedCross, sms, Texting, top