Haiti text donations overwhelm Red Cross

Total exceeds $8 million, and still climbing

Haiti earthquake relief donations made by text may not constitute a miracle, but the American Red Cross says it is overwhelmed by the millions of dollars it has received through $10 gifts sent via mobile phones.

As of early Friday, the Red Cross said it had raised $8 million in donations via texts, with the potential that millions of dollars more could come in over the long holiday weekend.

The simple process requires a mobile phone user with a text messaging capability to send "Haiti" to 90999, and a $10 donation is applied to their phone bill. Cellular companies are forwarding 100% of the total to the American Red Cross. "We honestly have no clue how much more to expect, but have been really surprised and overwhelmed by the amount of donations via texting," Red Cross spokeswoman Carrie Housman told Computerworld .

The $8 million raised in less than three days after the first earthquake ravaged Haiti was "unheard of," she said. Half the total was raised in less than a day, with $4 million raised by midday Thursday, following the earthquake, which hit late Tuesday.

"We never raised this much money with a mobile campaign, especially at $10 a time," she said, noting that some smaller domestic campaigns have been tried since 2008. Compared with earlier attempts going back to 2008, "this one has just blown the results out of the water."

She attributed the terrific response to the dire emergency, the closeness of Haiti to the U.S., and also the simplicity of donating via text.

"It's something easy that an average person can do, and the $10 amount has been key in this situation. It's a doable amount," she said. "A 10-year-old girl texted her donation and called to tell us and said she was planning to spread the word through her classmates. It was very emotional for her."

Housman said the campaign got off to early success, having been set up three hours after the first quake struck. The text-to-donate idea was also spread through Twitter and Facebook .

The cellular phone companies will transfer the funds to the Red Cross once donors pay their phone bills, which means the money might take between 30 and 60 days to reach the Red Cross. Still, the Red Cross has funneled $10 million to Haiti relief already, using its cash on hand, and is already delivering water and supplies. But it expects to be rebuilding the island nation for years, Housman said.

The Red Cross texting effort is powered by Mobile Accord and the MGive Foundation, and is being coordinated with the U.S. State Department, the Red Cross said on its Web site.

A map on the Red Cross site indicates that the largest number of text donations has come from populous states including those near Haiti, such as Texas and Florida.

Other texting relief efforts are under way, including by the Clinton Foundation and musician Wyclef Jean, but officials could not be reached to comment on how successful they have been.

To donate $5 through Wyclef Jean , text "Yele" to 501501. To donate $10 to the Clinton Foundation , text "Haiti" to 20222. Housman said the Red Cross is sure to evaluate other ways to use texting to raise funds in the future, perhaps accepting $1 or $20 donations. Since the Haiti earthquake, phone and Web and texting contributions (including the $8 million in text contributions by Friday) totaled $37 million, she said.

Kevin Burden, a mobile phone analyst for ABI Research Inc., said the $8 million collected by the Red Cross in less than three days was "just huge" and indicated the value of a simple way to donate.

"It's an easy way to make a transaction, and people don't even have to use a credit card online or even pull out $10 in cash," he noted. The outpouring of support for the Red Cross indicates an "extension of our comfort level of using the phone to actually pay for something," such as buying an inexpensive smartphone app.

But Burden said the small payment system enabled by texting contributions might have limits. "I don't expect people would pay a gym membership every month by phone," he said. "This is a one shot thing to donate to Haiti. An impulse donation like this makes sense."

Burden said the lesson for charity groups and businesses and marketing professionals is that "when you want to get donations from a lot of people very quickly, the mobile phone has become a great medium for it."

He credited American Idol, the TV show in which viewers text their favorite singer's name to vote for a winner, as helping the mass public realize some of the value of texting beyond chatting with friends. "American Idol has helped us see how a lot of people can get together and chip in and make something happen," he said. "There's a feeling of community that way, and it's easy, and you are having an impact."

Housman said that feeling of wanting to do something about Haiti relief is being addressed by its texting campaign as well. "This is something you are doing that's actually helping," she said. Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, warned against drawing too many conclusions about the power of using phones to make payments, however.

"The Haiti relief texting shows that many people in the states are no longer afraid to use their phones to make payments," he said. "Given the right circumstances, phone users will use their phones as their credit cards. But I think their generosity is more of a gut response to people seeing things going on in Haiti. Will this example enhance interest in people using phones as payments? I'm not sure that's the case."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld . Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen , send e-mail to mhamblen@computerworld.com or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed .

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