Text donations for Haiti earthquake overwhelm Red Cross

Total donated via text messages totals US$8 million; Red Cross says it's climbing fast

Text donations to Haiti earthquake relief may not constitute a miracle, but the American Red Cross says it is overwhelmed by the millions of US$10 gifts it has received via mobile phone texting.

As of early today, the Red Cross said it had raised $8 million in $10 donations via text messages, and that it could raise millions more via that route over the long holiday weekend.

The simple donation process requires a mobile phone user with a texting account to text the word "Haiti" to 90999. A $10 donation will be automatically applied to their phone bill. Cell phone companies have agreed to forward 100% of the total generated in the program 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," said Red Cross spokeswoman Carrie Housman in an interview today. The $8 million total raised by early Friday, less than three days after the earthquake ravaged Haiti, was "unheard of," she said. Half the total was raised in less than a day, she added.

"We never raised this much money with a mobile campaign, especially $10 at a time," Housman said, noting that smaller domestic mobile campaigns have been tried since 2008. The latest mobile fund-raising campaign, she said, "blows [those] results out of the water."

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

"It's something that an average person can do -- and the $10 amount has been key. It's doable," 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 started early; it was set up just three hours after the first quake struck. The text-to-donate plan was spread through various means, including popular social networks Twitter and Facebook .

The cellular companies will transfer the funds to the Red Cross once donors pay their phone bills, which means the money might take 30 to 60 days to reach the Red Cross, Housman noted. Still, the Red Cross has already funneled some $10 million to Haiti relief, using cash on hand. The delayed funds will also come in handy as the island rebuilding effort will likely go on 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, according to the Red Cross Web site.

A map on the Red Cross Web 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 sponsored by the Clinton Foundation and musician Wyclef Jean are also underway. Officials from those groups could not be reached to comment. The Wyclef Jean effort calls for texting the word "Yele" to 501501 while the Clinton Foundation program calls for texting "Haiti" to 20222.

Housman said the Red Cross will be evaluating other ways to use texting to raise funds in the future, perhaps by adding programs for $1 or $20 donations. Since the Haiti earthquake, phone and Web and texting contributions 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 is "just huge" and showed the value of simple donation processes.

"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."

But Burden added that the texting payment system could 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."

He credited American Idol, the TV show in which viewers vote for their favorite singer via text messages, with helping the public understand the value of text messaging 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, it's easy, and you have an impact."

Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, warned against drawing too many conclusions about the power of using phones to make payments.

"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."

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