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Haiti relief via text message, ushering mobile donations

A record $22 million has been raised via text messages by the American Red Cross for relief efforts in Haiti, a groundbreaking statistic that could propel an important new avenue for philanthropy going forward. The outpouring of text donations also debunks the notion that users aren't comfortable exchanging money over cell phones.

"This is a tipping point," said Brad Blanken, chief operating officer of mGive, a mobile donations company behind the Red Cross's texting campaign.

To understand why the Haiti texting campaign has worked so well, it is worth knowing a little of the back story.

Well before the disaster, the State Department had appointed a senior advisor on innovation, Alec Ross, to come up with ways to use technology such as text messaging and Web 2.0 applications to achieve foreign policy goals. One week before the disaster, Ross even organized a dinner for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to meet tech leaders including the CEO of mGive.

Within a couple hours after reports first emerged of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake in Haiti, a State Department offiicial reached out to the American Red Cross, mGive, and wireless trade organization CTIA to see what they might do to help.

All major wireless carriers said they would allow users to text SMS short code 90999 and type "Haiti." A user's account would be automatically charged $10 for the donation on their next bill and a user could text up to two times.

mGive had the software application to make it all work, so with the "flip of a switch we had it up and running," said Brad Blanken, chief operating officer of mGive.

By 11 p.m. last Tuesday, the text campaign was launched, Blanken said.

It didn't take long for $5 million in donations to be pledged through text message. The previous one-day record was about $450,000 when Alicia Keys appeared on American Idol and asked for mobile texting for her Africa charity.

Each day the texts for Haiti donations exploded. Twitter and Facebook were important mediums for spreading the word with trending topics "help Haiti" among the top of the list on Twitter. The National Football League over the weekend carried public service announcements promoting the text donations. First Lady Michelle Obama and celebrities also offered their encouragement.

At first, some of the cell phone carriers were charging users to send the texts. They soon reversed that policy and refunded those charges. Some, including Verizon and AT&T have fronted the donations to the Red Cross to speed up delivery of money that is typically held up until a user is billed and money form customers is received. That could have taken up to 90 days.

By Cecilia Kang  |  January 19, 2010; 9:00 AM ET
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I admit that at first I thought this might be a scam. But when the First Lady endorsed this idea, I texted my $10 of support!

Posted by: Dougmacintyre | January 19, 2010 1:30 PM | Report abuse

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