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Haiti: High Impact Technology for Disaster Relief Giving

January 15, 2010

It’s been approximately 72 hours since an earthquake struck Port-au-Prince, Haiti and the news is rife with stories of how to give money to effective organizations while avoiding scams. The current giving trend of mobile donations via text messaging is an eye-opening phenomenon but has also caused many to wonder how it will compare with the previous successes of online donations. Meanwhile, The Chronicle of Philanthropy released a figure of over $71 million already collected in donations to U.S. relief organizations.

Yesterday, Carol McLaughlin, our director of global public health research, had a chance to chat with KCBS radio on the $3.4 million raised by mobile giving (as of the recording Jan 14, 2010, 10:30am EST/7:30am PST). Follow the links to read the story and listen to the audio. We also have the audio available, searchable on iTunes and on our podcast subscription page. Additionally, Kat Rosqueta, our executive director, was quoted in BusinessWeek and the Chicago Tribune, in relation to the emergency relief efforts, electronically and on the ground. The total for mobile giving via text has now reached a total of $8 million to the American Red Cross via CBSNews.

As always, questions arise around the safety and sustainability of using new technology when it involves donating personal resources, such as money. After a quick round of brainstorming, our team came up with a few points to consider:

Pros (+) and Cons () of Donating via Text Messaging

  • + Easy to do, user-friendly, quick response (seconds-minutes)
  • + Low cost ($5-$10)
  • + Scale of use: close to 80% of Americans have cell phones
  • + Large and untapped demographic of young givers or “Millennials”
  • + Accessibility in the event of not being near a computer for immediate gift or a website crash due to heavy donation traffic (In the case of Yele.)
  • Money paid to orgs only after phone bill is paidlag in time for money to be paid to orgs (per NYTimes)
  • Software, Licensing, and Transaction fees to orgs (Per NYTimes. In this instance, fees have been waived for the most part.)
  • Limited donation amounts

How it works in this instance (4 steps):

  1. Text a specific keyword  to a designated number (Red Cross Example: Text the word “Haiti” to 90999)
  2. Wait to receive a text reply asking to confirm your donation amount (Red Cross Example: $10)
  3. Reply to the confirmation via text (Red Cross Example: Reply with the word “Yes”)
  4. Wait to receive a “Thank You/Confirmation” message that the donation has been received and will be charged to your phone bill

(Note: There are other instances of making transactions via text message. For example, there is a popular food truck on Penn’s campus, Tacos Don Memo, which offers a text service called Venmo to pay for your order. However, this service requires credit card information, which some are still wary of for online transactions.)

Potential for future giving:

  • Grassroots mobilization of small donation amounts
  • Wireless “Giving Circle”
  • Recurring gifts through phone bill or other utilities

These lists are not exhaustive but serve as a start for how technology and philanthropy are combining in the information age. You can refer to a previous blog post on Wireless Philanthropy and Social Impact and we encourage your thoughts and feedback. On a final note, our support and thanks goes out to the brave men and women who are lending their skills, aid, and hearts to the victims in Haiti and indeed to all individuals who have to endure such a tragedy. You can visit Penn’s response page to the disaster as well:

22 Comments leave one →
  1. January 17, 2010 2:47 pm

    If you know are planning to make a donation to assist those in need, please consider the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund.

  2. January 18, 2010 10:10 am

    $3.4 Million is an amazing amount of money and I think, if used properly, the money donated so far could go a long way to helping repair Haiti and help their people. However, I can’t help but think that due to the scale of this disaster, it is going to have a very long term effect on their people, many of whom were already living in poverty to begin with.

    I think the points you mention, regarding finding a way to easily engage the youth, who are not going to be as likely to respond to traditional fund-raising, are spot on. Using cell phones and engaging them in other social settings, as well as making it as quick and easy as possible, are essential for getting the youth involved.

  3. February 3, 2010 11:24 am

    Hi, I’m one of the cofounders of Venmo and saw you mention us (we’re Penn alumni, actually). Anyway, we are very excited about the simplicity of text message payments as a means to do fundraising like the Red Cross and Relief Foundation are doing.

    It’s thrilling to be able to empower this sort of thing. Please get in touch if you run a charity organization and want to run a similar campaign yourself!

    • impactsp2walden permalink*
      February 5, 2010 12:45 pm

      Hi Andrew,
      Thanks for commenting! Penn alumni always amaze me with their innovations. 🙂 We are actually about to post about the information regarding costs to nonprofits for text donation campaigns. Could you provide information on your organization’s costs for nonprofits and corporations?

      • February 5, 2010 12:49 pm

        Sure, the costs are pretty similar to credit card processing fees and variable depending on how much volume in txns you do. Anyone can contact me [kortina at our domain] if they have specific questions. Also, if you need any more info from me for your next post, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

  4. Matt permalink
    August 1, 2010 11:36 pm

    The Haiti disaster is a harsh subject. This country was in poverty before this incident, why wern’t people donating then? And are they still donating now? 6 months later, outside of the medias view.

  5. October 6, 2010 8:42 am

    It’s amazing how much technology has helped the relief effort. Just imagine, 10 years ago it would have been a lot different!

  6. October 21, 2010 4:22 am

    Pros (+) and Cons (-) of Donating via Text Messaging – I very much enjoyed this and the point that make me impressive is

    1. Easy to do, user-friendly, quick response (seconds-minutes)

    2. Low cost ($5-$10)

    3. Scale of use: close to 80% of Americans have cell phones

  7. December 10, 2010 6:44 am

    If you know are planning to make a donation to assist those in need, please consider the Haiti Emergency Relief Fund.

  8. September 2, 2011 6:43 am

    In such instances only we understand the power of technology. I am doing a research project on same topic. In my nation India, mobiles and facebook are extensively used for donations, reaching help in emergencies and standing against corruption ()recent Anna Hazare case).

    In the end I would like to quote Mother Teresa – “We can do no great things, only small things with great love”.

    I pray for people of Haiti.

  9. October 29, 2011 4:20 pm

    I came across this post while doing client research and thought it was still appropriate to comment. Mobile Giving is certainly the future of donations, especially during “in the moment” catastophes. One major hurdle will be the perceived security of the individual making the donation. Just like early adopters of purchasing items online back in the 90’s, people will need time to adjust to such methods of donation. However, in time I am sure we will see this means of funding increase and ultimately become part of the norm.

    • November 25, 2011 6:10 pm

      yep i agree with this, it makes it 10x easier to make a donation through your mobile. It can be accessed at any place any time, and they can be used easily by just about anyone. Not to mention the huge amount of people who own them. Its predicted mobile internet usage will surpass desktop PCs in the next few years.

  10. December 11, 2011 6:50 pm

    Mobile Giving is here. It is almost Christmas time and I am surprised that the Salvation Army does not have a way to take donations with a mobile app. How much more could their organization be doing with the money they would collecting from their red pots? How many times have you heard their bell and not had any money with you to give?

    I personally think that donation should be as easy as possible.

    People do not think twice about buying an app for $1..why not make it easy to donate $1.

    Great article.


  11. February 11, 2012 3:47 pm

    Try our low cost SMS messaging service. We can send out millions of text messages as low as $.009. Look for us here

  12. February 27, 2012 1:37 pm

    I think it is still important to know that the people of Haiti still need our help, even a couple of years on. Thanks for letting me know about the chance to donate by sms.

  13. May 16, 2013 6:49 am

    It’s amazing how much technology has helped the relief effort. Thanks


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