Can your organization take advantage of mobile “impulse philanthropy”? – and what it may do to your donors

Nearly all our clients are trying to figure out how to use mobile phones for fundraising and cultivation.

Ever since the Red Cross raised $31 million from $10 text-to-give messages to help the suffering in Haiti, nonprofits have been lusting after what Jim Manis, president of the Mobile Giving Foundation, calls “impulse philanthropy.”  Others have been worrying that, as mobile devices surpass PCs and laptops in a few years as the main Internet access points for most people, will younger donors adopt this “impulse” giving in place of long-term loyalty to organizations.

First, the facts.  The Red Cross and Wyclef Jean’s Yele were the only big winners in mobile giving around Haiti, with the Red Cross getting nearly all of it.  Among the hundreds of other organizations responding to the earthquake, a dozen or so each raised a few hundred —  nothing to sneeze at, but a fraction of what they raised from emails and their Web sites.  And when people give via text messaging, the organizations don’t get their contact information, apart from one text message asking them to opt in to ongoing communications.   Nine of 15% of donors opt in to ongoing messaging, said Jim Manis of the Mobile Giving Foundation, which works with the mobile carriers to manage donations.

Apart from Haiti, there have been a handful of other successful efforts over the last few years, such as Alicia Keyes’ text-to-give appeals at her concerts to benefit her charity fighting AIDS in Africa charity.

In any case, very few groups have made mobile work – yet.  Of course, you don’t want to use email or your Web site to ask supporters to give via mobile when they could give much larger gifts online, with full contact info.  Mobile might be good to get impulse gifts from people you couldn’t reach any other way, or who won’t give any other way.  If you could be on dozens or thousands of billboards with your mobile number, that might get new gifts.  If your quarterback could ask for mobile donations from the 70,000 folks in the stands – and many more watching on TV – that could work (though groups who have done this have generally been disappointed in the results).  If you’re an aid group and there’s another Haiti, you want to have your mobile giving program ready, especially if you can convince Michelle Obama or Sarah Palin to promote it with PSAs.

At a recent conference on mobile giving, Tim Sawer of World Vision, shared some of the wisdom he’s garnered as head of new products and new channels for the giant development organization, which is also a master of marketing.  Allow the donor to give via their channel(s) of choice, he stresses.   World Vision has gathered mobile numbers in churches and by asking for them from the stage at events, then followed up with a fundraising appeal.   The mobile donor demographic sweet spot is 18-35 but then World Vision sees a pretty even spread among other donors under 70.  These donors are giving to the cause more than to the organization, so specific asks — $10 for a malaria bed net or $10 for a water project – work best.

The ongoing challenge, Sawer explains, is to move the donor toward loyalty to the organization – from impulse to a relationship, from giving to a cause or event to giving to the organization.  The other challenge is to make the back-end work – to see if you can ID the donor in your database when all you may have is her mobile number – and to manage the donor across channels.  Asking for mobile numbers in all donor communications across channels is going to be essential, Sawer says.

Nick Allen is co-founder and chief strategy officer of Donordigital, the online fundraising, marketing, and advertising company.  Contact: or phone (510) 473-0366.

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