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Haiti relief update: What to know about text donations

Consumer Reports News: January 14, 2010 10:27 PM

For thousands of Americans concerned with aiding Haitian earthquake victims, providing help has been as simple as typing a few numbers and letters into a mobile phone. Charities like the American Red Cross and the Yele Haiti Foundation are raising millions of dollars in hours thanks to text-message donations. 

By about 7 pm Eastern time today, the American Red Cross reported raising more than $5 million in aid to Haiti via text-message donations, all in $10 increments. That's about 15 percent of the total $35 million it's raised in support of Haiti relief efforts. It's also more than three times the amount of money raised via text by all American charities in the last two years combined. The philanthropic community already is viewing this as a breakthrough in finding and reaching new donors, particularly mobie-savvy young people.

If you've never used this method before—or if you're using it for the first time—here are some useful things to know about text donations.

• The system is simple. You type a numeric code into your cel phone, and then type in a word. For the American Red Cross, you text the word, "HAITI" and send it to 90999. For the Salvation Army, you text "HAITI" to the number 52000. You'll then get a message confirming that you want to donate. The amount is typically $5 or $10, depending on the charity. To process the donation, you type the word, "yes" back into your cel phone, and you'll get a confirming message. When your cel phone bill comes, you'll have an extra charge, indicating a donation, similar to the charges that show up for, say, ringtones. 

• The charity may pay a fee for your donation. While a charity may say it's donating 100 percent of what you give, in fact it often pays fees to third-party providers that set up the text-donation service. That means the donation is not without cost. Denver-based mGive, the engine behind the Red Cross Haiti text donation connection, generally charges charities a few cents per donation, plus an annual fee from $400 to $1,500 a month, depending on the service plan the organization chooses. But Jody Peake, a spokeswoman for mGive, told us that the company is not charging those fees to the Red Cross for the Haiti fundraising campaign. She said she did not know how long that fee waiver would last. [UPDATE: The Mobile Giving Foundation, which sets the standards for mobile donations, says the charities served by its participating networks are never charged a transaction fee.]

• [UPDATE: All four major mobile networks are waiving the per-message fee they charge on some plans for Haiti charitable donations.]  Depending on your carrier and your mobile phone plan, you may get charged a fee—say, 10 cents per message—to send your donation. But you may not. Verizon Wireless spokeman Jeffrey Nelson told us his company never charges a fee for text donations to charities. Verizon says it leaves it to middlemen like mGive to verify which charities are bona fide.

• If you use a pre-paid mobile phone, you may not be able to use the text-donation system. Some companies may allow for it. [UPDATE: AT&T says that anyone with a balance of more than the donation amount on their pre-paid AT&T phone plan can use those funds to make donations. And the company will cover, without penalty, folks who go over their balance if they're on a plan that automatically replenishes their minutes each month.]

• You donations may be limited. Nelson said Verizon Wireless limits how many text donations you can give to a single charity within a billing cycle. For the Red Cross Haiti relief, the limit on Verizon is four times per billing cycle. That's to prevent, for instance, multiple donations "from your eight-year-old who thinks this is the greatest thing in the world," Nelson said. Of course, you always can donate more via a regular phone call, mail, or the charity's Web site. [UPDATE: Typically, total donations per billion cycle are limited to five $5 donations and three $10 donations, or $55.]

• You may get more solicitations. Once you donate, you'll be part of the charity's donor list, and may hear from it again. To opt out of those, you may have to go to the charity's Web site, or to the Web site of a third party like mGive. [UPDATE: the Mobile Giving Foundation, which sets the standards for text donations, says charities must ask you to opt in to receive additional solicitations.] 

• The money may take while to get to the charity. With mGive, the lag time is up to 90 days. That's because the company must wait for the bill to come to you, for you to pay the bill, for your carrier to pay the foundation that mGive set up for such funds, and for the foundation to pay your charity. Nonetheless, American Red Cross' Social Media Specialist Gloria Huang said that should not stop donors from text donations. The charity can determine how much money to earmark for a crisis based on pledges, even without the money in hand. [UPDATE: Major mobile carriers have announced they will expedite payment to Haiti relief without waiting until customers pay their bills.]

• The fact you donate is more important than the method you use. "I wouldn't say one [way] is better than the other," Huang said. "We have been urging people to give in any way they can."

For more on donating safely and effectively through text and other means, check the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance's advice, as well as our updated blog from yesterday listing many avenues for giving.—Tobie Stanger and Anthony Giorgianni

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