Mobile Fundraising: Why aren’t we there yet?

Your mobile phone is probably within arm’s reach right now. And it’s probably on. Like everyone else on the planet (which reportedly has more mobile devices than toothbrushes), you probably use your phone to go online, make reservations, listen to music, take pictures, refer to maps, access social networks, text, and occasionally even make a phone call. Mobile devices are fast becoming our all-purpose, constant companions. And every time a function gets easier, people use (read: pounce on) it. Starbucks had 5 million mobile payments (14% of all transactions nationwide) just last week.

So why isn’t money pouring into nonprofits through mobile phones?

If mobile is so popular, why is fundraising so hard?

Two key elements of “mobile fundraising” are in the way: the well-intentioned do-it-yourself culture of many nonprofits, and a basic misunderstanding of the role of texting and giving.

First, if you want to send text messages to ask for gifts, you need an intermediary to deal with phone carriers. You’re only one charity, but your donor base uses multiple carriers. Mobile Cause, Mobile Giving, and mGive are the services to which US charities often turn to arrange delivery of your text messages, manage opt-in and out, manage and track transactions — and not least, to guide strategy and practices in a channel which operates very differently from your other digital activities. Some organizations are used to outsourcing activities like canvassing, direct mail, or telemarketing, but many rely on internal resources to manage tech solutions like email, which is not an option for mobile campaigns.

Second, fundamental misunderstandings exist about what mobile giving actually is. Mobile campaign companies tell me that many nonprofits still think of mobile fundraising as the “text-to-give” process by which $5 or $10 is added to your phone bill. Let’s start there.

What mobile giving was, and what it is now

Tragedies like hurricanes and earthquakes instantly dominate headlines and donors’ concern. Repetition of text-to-give messages delivered on television by US presidents and CNN screen crawls have created the understandable sense that this was mobile giving. In these circumstances, it certainly is.

But nonprofits whose mission is not emergency response and who cannot command mainstream media attention, are turning to “text-to-pledge,” by which a donor texts any amount via their mobile phone and receives a link to a mobile-optimized online giving form to complete. This avoids using carriers as gift collectors, takes the limits off gift levels, and promotes the kind of immediate communication fundraisers (and donors) prefer.

Of course, if the nonprofit does not have a plan for mobile communications, and if it’s giving forms are not beautiful and easy on a smartphone, the process is dead before it even starts.

But for nonprofits who have invested in a mobile campaign company and the necessary planning, the numbers for text-to-pledge are intriguing:

  • Reported average gifts are in the $64-107 range
  • Pledge fulfillment ranges from 59-84%.
  • At fundraising events and dinners, attendee response rates have hit 22-37% with averages exceeding $100.

These results are a far cry from $5 or $10, delivered months after the gift was made. Clearly our sector needs more case studies of the cost-benefit of text-to-pledge and other expedited mobile giving solutions.

Caution: You’re already in the mobile game, ready or not

All your organization’s email with a donate button put you squarely in the fight for mobile giving. Your year-end fundraising email blitz will be read mostly on smartphones (some on tablets), and if your email — and the donation form it links to — are not truly mobile optimized, you’re going to feel the pain.

The shift to mobile is not some distant trend. Your email and online forms are in the mobile arena now.

Digital Wallets, apps and other cool tools: Will they help?

What if your donors never had to enter their credit card or bank information on their smartphones to give? Right now, umpteen millions of dollars are being pumped into creating secure “wallets” to hold this information for consumers so they can simply make a purchase on their phone and tell their wallet to handle the transaction. Financial behemoths like VISA’s wallet, American Express and MasterCard, as well as PayPal, are all working on wallets which can be accessed online.

Pioneer Google Wallet, already 3 years old, still battles for universal adoption, suggesting it will probably be credit card companies, not tech services, which will tip the scales. After all, they are already universally used…and control your credit line.

Another school of thought suggests that apps will increase mobile giving. Examples of apps for smartphones and tablets include Check-in for Good, which is tied to merchant purchases, and Give Mob, which uses the traditional text-to-give function and thus limits gifts to $5 or $10. Neither seems to be used widely by donors and holds little interest for nonprofits seeking a closer relationship with donors – and bigger gifts. More promising is Give App, the new, free mobile app released just last month by Network for Good and Guidestar. Still in beta, the app allows a donor to search among 1.9 million US nonprofits, give or set up ongoing giving, and store information for future gifts.

And of course, there is always the option of creating your own branded app, though one wonders of consumers’ “app tolerance” is already being tested. Time will tell.

Predictions and Advice

When true mobile transaction convenience arrives, it will change everything about the way we acquire and renew donors. I believe we can expect major shifts in donor behavior to occur within the next three years, while apps and digital wallets battle for adoption.

Of course, like email and online giving, there will be a learning and testing phase for nonprofits, and the wise get started early. You didn’t wait until everyone else had websites or email programs before starting your own. Playing catch-up with the world’s most universal technology is not where you want to be. So the smart move right now is:

  • Learn the facts and issues. Your schedule should include at least a quarterly webinar on mobile giving from Heather Mansfield, Darian Rodriguez Heyman, or from one of the mobile campaign companies listed here. Sure they want you to buy their services, but they have the best, most current case studies, and in my experience genuinely want to help you learn.
  • Learn about the tools. A simple search on “mobile devices” on the NTEN site yields data specific tools for mobile optimizing tools for content and secure giving. Go beyond the nonprofit community to publications like GeekWire and Plus, all the credit card sites have clear explanations and current status updates on their wallets.
  • Be a mobile donor and shopper. Sign up for mobile alerts, and join or give to a charity you like. The Heifer Project is everyone’s favorite example of most digital fundraising, and mobile is no exception. Join any walk-a-thon or other peer-to-peer event offer mobile engagement and giving. Or shop around Kickstarter for projects offering mobile giving. And use a digital wallet at the ball game, coffee shop or department store and compare the experience to giving to your organization.

The key is to admit what you know in your heart…when the convenience part of mobile transactions gets, well, more convenient, everything is going to change. And that not take much longer.

Richard McPherson
Fundraising Consultant
McPherson Advisor
Advisor and coach helping nonprofits increase donor support while adapting to the changing technology and social environment. Clients have included leading NPR and PBS stations, major universities, international relief agencies, women's rights organizations, conservation advocates and the United Nations. Guest lecturer at Columbia University, UCLA, NYU, author or Digital Giving: How Technology is Changing Charity (2007)