Marketplace Scratch Pad

Texting while donating

Scott Jagow Jan 14, 2010

If there’s a silver lining to Haiti’s devastating earthquake, it may be the discovery of a new model for helping the victims of such disasters. Yesterday, the Red Cross raised $3 million through text messages alone. That is by far the most mobile giving in a single day. Another million has come in so far today.

The difference between this disaster and previous ones seems to be a new method for giving — donating on impulse, as we called it this morning. Every time someone texts “HAITI” to 90999, a $10 donation goes to the Red Cross and is simply added to the person’s phone bill. No need to enter credit card information, open an email or visit a website. Texting HAITI TO 20222 donates $10 to the Clinton Foundation. Texting YELE to 50150 gives $5 to Wyclef Jean’s fund for helping Haiti victims.

Since the money is being billed to customers and collected later, the phone companies have to advance it to the Red Cross and the other organizations. More from Daily Finance:

According to Jeffrey Nelson, a Verizon spokesman, his company won’t charge customers for processing the donations and is looking into ways to advance the money so it can reach the disaster zone more quickly. T-Mobile has also said it will facilitate the donations without charge. On Thursday afternoon, AT&T said it would waive fees for text message donations to Haiti and retroactively reimburse users for fees already paid. Sprint customers, however, may incur a fee if they aren’t subscribed to an unlimited data plan.

This could be a significant step in the evolution of social media networking and fundraising. So far, it’s been difficult to turn activist intentions into cash. From CNN Tech:

“Slacktivism” has become the popular pejorative to describe the various Internet petitions, well-intentioned Facebook groups and copious retweets intended to sow the seeds of change or bring help where it’s needed. “It’s all fed by slacktivism … the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair,” Monty Phan wrote in a 2001 Newsday article.

The term has stuck in large part because its claims are true. Even tech optimists like myself are forced to concede that while online fundraising campaigns can rack up thousands of tweets in an afternoon, persuading those same participants to open their wallets remains a challenge.

Part of the problem, of course, is that people are hesitant to share their credit card information or open an solicitous email or go to a website they’re not sure about. Sadly but predictably, scammers are already trying get in on the Haiti generosity. If you receive an email akin to this, delete it.

But text donations that are billed later may solve the problems. It also allows people to act immediately as the crisis is unfolding (when they are the most emotionally moved by it as well). The trick will be getting the money in place as quickly as the technology is allowing it to be donated, and of course, as with any natural disaster, properly accounting for it and spending it effectively.

The Red Cross estimates that this week’s earthquake has killed as many as 50,000 Haitians. NPR has a collection of the latest photos from Haiti.

You’ll hear more about text message giving tonight on Marketplace. But do you trust this new form of giving?

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