Charities are quite literally supposed to be labors of love. As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said, “Charity literally translated from the original means love, the love that understands, that does not merely share the wealth of the giver, but in true sympathy and wisdom helps men to help themselves.” Surely we can agree that a charitable or nonprofit organization ought to concern itself with aiding people and achieving selfless ends.
But that doesn’t mean charities shouldn’t attend to monetary matters. Indeed, nonprofits are an important part of the U.S. economy. Some 1.5 million such organizations account nearly 10 percent of all wages paid in America. Just consider the percentages of people that donate in Myanmar (90 percent), Malta (73 percent), the United Kingdom (73 percent), Australia (71 percent), and Canada (66 percent).
It seems, then, that nonprofits should worry less about convincing people as to the importance of giving and focus more on reaching out efficiently and effectively—things with which SMS can certainly help.
Goodness knows there’s room for it. According to Ashley Scherer of the charitable-services company AH, roughly 70 percent of nonprofits lack a marketing plan altogether. Scherer points out a number of reasons why they should remedy this ASAP. A plan helps you stay cost effective. It aids decision making. It helps craft clean communications. And it lets you know what failed to work in the past.
For my part, I’d agree with her reasons, and I suspect the following list of 15 companies that employed SMS in their operations would too.
1) Arrowhead United Way
An oft-ballyhooed fact about SMS is how effective it is at getting messages in front of audiences. Some say that 99 percent of texts get opened, an impressive statistic by any measure. But while marketers like to highlight that open rate, few seem to note how SMS can help you communicate faster than the Flash after a trenta-sized caramel macchiato.
Consider this: Mere hours after terrorists killed 14 and wounded 22 in San Bernardino, California, Arrowhead United Way (a local chapter of the world’s largest privately-funded nonprofit) sent out a call for funds via SMS. The charity specified that the entirety of the amount raised would go to victims and their families.
The campaign started with an initial goal of $10,000—and ended with nearly $1.4 million raised. Arrowhead United Way’s Porsche Nichols-McCoy concluded, “It is very important that all types of organizations be ready to raise donations fast.”
2) American Red Cross
The American arm of the Red Cross employed a similar strategy when Hurricane Sandy slammed into New Jersey in 2012. Though inhabitants of the Caribbean, Florida, and the Carolinas have experience with such monster storms, hurricanes rarely strike so far north in the continental United States. Worse yet, Hurricane Sandy hit right before winter, adding the risk of exposure to the $18.75 billion it caused in insurance damages.
American Red Cross quickly swung into action, implementing an SMS fundraising campaign. By texting “REDCROSS” to 90999, constituents could donate $10 to Hurricane Sandy relief. In addition to being timely, it only required a mere 30 seconds to complete.
3) Occupy SMS
Hurricane Sandy played an outsized role in actions of Occupy SMS—or perhaps it was the other way around. For every big-budget, well-established nonprofit, there are scores of smaller organizations and motivated individuals who want to help but don’t know where to start. That was where Occupy SMS stepped in by coordinating between those impacted by the storm and others eager to lend aid.
By texting “SANDY” to 69866, people requesting food, shelter, or debris removal could get added to a database. Simultaneously, individuals willing to offer those services would text “MUTUAL AID” to the same code. Occupy SMS cross referenced the two lists, supplied parties with contact information, and removed volunteers from the system after they had provided services.
So forget the need for expensive IT infrastructure or a volunteer coordinator! Thanks to SMS, charitable work was organized for pennies.
4) Cal State University Monterey Bay
Flash mobs were all the rage a few years back, and you could hardly log on to YouTube without seeing mass sing-alongs or dance-offs in public spaces. Cal State University Monterey Bay (CSUMB) decided to use crowd-crashing events to raise funds for its athletics department. The campaign had a couple of preconditions, though. It needed to raise a minimum of $10,000, and it needed to do so within 36 hours.
CSUMB kicked the effort off with an advertisement aired during a nationally televised women’s basketball game and followed it up with the aforementioned flash mobs. But how could the university verify the amounts received within such a short time frame? Simple: It solicited donations via text message with various keywords corresponding to different teams. Not only is giving via SMS easy for donators, it allows nonprofits to accumulate and verify monies incredibly quickly.
5) The Humane Society
Speed matters for more than individual campaigns. According to Slate, some 40 percent of all individual charitable donations get made during December. How many nonprofits suffer because constituents forget the year-end tax benefits of giving or don’t get a check in the mail until after the calendar has rolled over?
The Humane Society didn’t want to be one of them. Concerned about donor fatigue after an aggressive legislative push, the advocacy organization fired off a round of texts to prescreened contacts on December 30, urging them to make a last-minute donation. It then followed it up with an email. According to the group, those who received texts were 77 percent more likely to donate online.
6) Saddleback Church
When Saddleback Church (the seventh largest church in the United States with a regular weekly attendance of 20,000) wanted to improve its childcare and connect with congregants, it looked no further than parishioners’ phones.
Saddleback had originally employed a pager system so nursery staff could stay in touch with parents after they dropped their children off during services. Cumbersome, complicated, and costly, the pagers only made Sunday morning more frantic. The church replaced them with simple texts that alerted parents if anything required their attention.
Additionally, Saddleback employed SMS to make the megachurch seem small. Screens arranged throughout the sanctuary urged attendees to participate in Easter-related trivia and provided keywords so that they could receive more information about the church.
7) Hampden DuBose Academy
Located in the Orlando-Kissimmee metro area of Florida, Hampden DuBose Academy faced challenges familiar to schools both large and small: Faculty, parents, and students seemed to have a difficult time getting synced on the same schedule.
Rather than simply photocopy more syllabi or bury information in a password-locked online knowledge base, Hampden DuBose turned to texting. Regular messages sent throughout the week kept enrolled parties aware of class details, events, important forms, and campus-related news.
8) Third Reformed Church
Craig Zuithoff, Student Ministry Leader for Third Reformed Church in Pella, Iowa, also wanted to find a way to effectively communicate with young adults in his congregation. After trying social media and group emails, he settled on SMS, personally soliciting phone numbers from members of his youth group and setting up opt-in forms on a website.
The result? A vast majority (80 percent) of his students elected to receive texts, and Zuithoff used SMS to remind them about upcoming events and weekly meetings, which often shifted locations. Attendance increased, and parents also signed up to receive the alerts so they could keep track of their children.
9) Water is Basic
Tracking can serve more than a practical purpose. Nonprofits can also use SMS alerts as an intentional outreach, a way to show current and potential donors the impact of an organization’s actions. That’s exactly what Water is Basic did.
Every year in south Sudan, numerous children die from lack of access to clean water. Water is Basic seeks to provide local leaders with the materials needed to dig their own wells. A worthy goal, but the old adage “out of sight, out mind” applies doubly to donor relations. How can an organization keep constituents connected with a project when the end product lies on the other side of the globe?
Water is Basic decided that SMS could help. U.S. Coordinator Steve Harrell had a simple goal: “Text WATER to 313131 (or 393939 for Canada) to hear where your money is going!” Those who opted in would receive texts telling them exactly when drilling of a new well had commenced.
10) Operation Underground Railroad
Sometimes such immediate updates can take a turn for the dramatic. Though institutionalized slavery seems essentially dead across the world, illicit enterprises have kept the abominable practice alive on the margins of society. The FBI estimates that human trafficking is “the third-largest criminal activity in the world.”
Enter Operation Underground Railroad, a nonprofit that both busts the bad guys and provides donors with a window into the operations that take them down. By texting “UPDATES” to 51555, participants can opt in to receive notices prior to a sting, as it occurs, and the results after it has concluded.
11) The Brady Campaign
Motivating people to get involved in politics has always been a challenging proposition. Busy schedules and the fatigue generated by 24/7 cable news cycle tends to blunt the urgency of legislative outreach—at least most of the time. During a recent advocacy push, The Brady Campaign decided to use every communication channel at its disposal (e.g., email, social media, SMS) to see which proved most effective.
It led to some interesting conclusions. Social media, the darling of so many marketers, consistently came in last. Email had middling to good effects. But SMS outranked them all by a wide margin.
12) The Alley Theatre
As I’ve documented before, the phenomenal results of SMS can sometimes lead organizations to implement sketchy strategies such as populating their lists with unapproved numbers, a violation of Federal law. However, groups don’t need to throw out otherwise excellent data. They should simply ensure they obtain consent first.
That’s the tack The Alley Theatre took. A top-tier nonprofit theatre, Alley stages old favorites and overlooked works, develops new plays, and has received a Tony Award for Outstanding Regional Theatre. What’s more, Alley had accumulated six decades’ worth of contact information from donors and patrons, and it wanted to use it in its marketing efforts.
Unlike Papa John’s and Jiffy Lube, Alley put in the work to determine which of its numbers actually linked to cell phones and then ensured that recipients wanted communications from the Theatre. In the end, over 32,000 people agreed to receive texts directing them to YouTube videos, news announcements, and donation requests.
13) Faith Farm Ministries
Faith Farm Ministries is another nonprofit with deep roots. Founded in 1951 as a Fort Lauderdale-based rehab center, Faith Farm seeks to return participants to sobriety through its long-term residential rehab programs. In addition to deriving operating income from its participant-run thrift stores, it also accepts donations.
Historically Faith Farm has funneled its promotional efforts through old media. (Think television, print ads, and radio spots.) But these sorts of outreach are pricey, and the nonprofit decided to try a more thrifty option: SMS. During its first year of text marketing, Faith Farm saved $45,000 while simultaneously earning $116,000 in revenue.
14) Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter
SMS can also integrate with traditional media. Just consider the example of Good Neighbor Homeless Shelter. Based out of Cartersville, Georgia, this halfway house decided to piggyback off of the popularity of ABC’s Dancing with the Stars series as part of its fundraising and used SMS to facilitate it.
Good Neighbor coordinated with local celebrities and paired them off in dance teams, recording their performances and uploading them to social media sites. Constituents were then urged to text their “votes” (each dollar donated equaled a single ballot) to 51555. Celebrities had their own designated keywords. The campaign raised over $100,000.
15) Mobile Commons
Low voter turnout constantly bedevils political scientists and community activists alike. But a study by Princeton University may have discovered a partial solution: People are four to five percent more likely to vote after receiving an SMS reminder.
Though not a nonprofit, software firm Mobile Commons decided a little charitable effort was in order when it came to helping people locate where they can vote. By texting “WHERE” to 877877, anyone can find the address and hours of his polling place for free.
As you can see, SMS dovetails naturally with the work of all sorts of nonprofits. From raising funds to communicating news, synchronizing schedules to providing immediate updates, text messaging makes an extraordinary number of tasks easy. Indeed, the main limit seems to be organizations’ imaginations.