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Text Donations Have Created A World Of Impulse Giving

Because they made giving as easy as buying a song on iTunes, text-based donations were a huge source of money for Haiti after the earthquake. Is this new impulse toward giving going to change philanthropy for the better or make people even more alienated from the problems they think they’re fixing?

In the aftermath of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, hundreds of millions of dollars flooded into the country. A sizeable chunk of that—$43 million—didn’t come from governments, religious groups, or charitable organizations—it came from text messages.

The "Text to Haiti" campaign, as it was known, became a remarkable success, and a sign of the growing power of grassroots mobile giving. According to a new report out today from Pew Research Center, one in 10 U.S. adults has used text messages to make charitable donations. "These contributions [are] often spur-of-the-moment decisions," the report says, "[a] new mode of engagement [that] offers opportunities to philanthropies and charitable groups for reaching new donors under new circumstances, as messages spread virally through friend networks."

The success of "Text to Haiti" has given rise to the idea of "impulse giving," the concept that in order to reach as many individual donors as possible, the process of donating has to be as easy, accessible, and pain-free as possible—no less impulsive of a purchase than a 99-cent song is on Apple’s iTunes Store. Pew’s survey of 863 donors found that 89% of respondents heard of "Text to Haiti" through television, and 50% made their contribution immediately after discovering the campaign. Another 23% of respondents donated later that same day. The report found these were "quick decisions based on the images [donors] saw on television."

Text message donations are also viral in nature, Pew concluded, but the campaign most powerfully spread through one’s in-person network. It turns out that it’s much harder to deny someone. "Although technology helped facilitate their initial donation, the donors we surveyed were more likely to spread the word about their contribution through face-to-face conversations than through online means," the report indicated. Almost half of Haiti text-message donors encouraged their friends and family members to make contributions; roughly 75% did so in person, whereas just 21% did so via online social networks. "Most of these efforts were successful," the report says. "76% of these 'encouragers’ say that their friends or family members did indeed make a contribution."

There are downsides to text-message giving, however. Call it a twist on Malcom Gladwell’s "slacktivism," the (controversial) viewpoint that with a few mouse-clicks and an occasional tweet one is somehow performing activism on par with Rosa Parks. Most donors surveyed made their contributions based on what were essentially knee-jerk reactions to disturbing images seen on the news, a fairly apathetic form of philanthropy. Few respondents did even minimal background research on the cause; what’s worse, 43% of donors have not paid close attention to ongoing reconstruction efforts in Haiti, while 15% have not followed the crisis at all. "It poses new challenges, including the uncertainty in fundraising groups about whether these new donors will remain engaged once they make their donation," writes Pew.

Still, it would be hard to argue such a novel and impactful method of charity is ultimately bad, especially given the donations and new contributors it has brought for Haiti. Roughly three-quarters of respondents in Pew’s survey were first-time mobile givers. What’s more, more than half have since contributed to other relief efforts, with 40% text-donating to causes related to the disaster in Japan, and 27% donating to organizations after the BP oil spill. Once you start texting to give, it seems, it’s pretty hard to stop.