photo by pope saint victor on flickr

Smartphone penetration is nearing 50% in Canada.  But there’s been a 24% decrease in the number of organizations with an active text-to-give program.[1]

Actually, according to Katherine Winchester [2] from the Mobile Giving Foundation Canada, a measly 114 Canadian charities have registered for mobile giving.2 I first thought I had heard that number incorrectly. Only, I just did a rough count on their site and it’s not wrong.  A total of 114 charities, out of 85,000 registered Canadian charities, are working in the mobile realm.  That’s less than 0.15%.

This number surprised me. It floored me. And then it didn’t.

Outside of emergencies, we have yet to see any fantastically successful text-to-give campaigns. Mobile is expense, it cultivates one-off giving, and it’s a technology many of us are just trying to understand. If the big charities have yet to master mobile, than small and large charities – for the most part – are writing it off. You’re doing well if you can recover the expense of offering this donation option.

European charities are rockin’ mobile

I kicked off my first day at AFP Congress 2012 by attending Leadership and Innovation in Telephone Fundraising – an International Perspective with Daryl Upsall.

Daryl took the audience through a lot of fantastic case studies and showed us how well mobile was working. In the world of mobile giving, everything that was old is suddenly new again.

Daryl gave us examples of integrated campaigns using urinal advertising, buck slips, street solicitation, newspaper ads, bus and mass transit campaigns, and the outstanding capacity to use celebrities and other TV personalities to make text-to-donate asks during prime time shows.

He even stated that the bar of success has been raised for mobile campaigns. If you don’t raise 20 million euros in the first 24 hours, your campaign is considered to be a flop.

With stats like these, it’s no wonder we seem to be mobile failures in Canada. Many of us would be lucky to raise $5,000 for a campaign, never mind any sum of money with six or seven zeros attached.

Here’s the catch. The big successes Darryl shared with his captivated audience predominately came out of Europe.

One of the greatest feats of mobile giving in Europe is their ability to leverage the long-term value of donors. Immediately, using telemarketing, many charities are seeing a 40% conversion rate of SMS donors into monthly giving. Or if they’re not that lucky, they’re at least collecting email addresses, getting contact info, building relationships, and then making one-time or monthly asks down the road typically within six months. How is this possible you ask?

Technically speaking, the mobile flow looks something like this: donor makes an SMS donation, immediately this information is streamed over to the telemarketing agency, the donor is called, thanked and the donor is asked if they’d like to make a monthly gift. Sometimes, it’s not that forthright.  Sometimes it’s just a welcome conversation; sometimes other donor information is collected.

As Daryl gently admonished us for not taking advantage of mobile in Canada given how simple and effective it is, there’s one key difference that’s holding us all back. It’s a difference that those working outside of Canada often don’t seem to get.

Telecommunications regulations in Canada are all about the opt-in, while our European counterparts are lucky enough to have an opt-out system.

Opt-in paralysis

In Canada, we’re not permitted to contact someone who has made a mobile donation to us unless they’ve opted-in to be contacted. And, electing to opt-in is a rather onerous and cumbersome process.

For those of you who are new to mobile giving, this is what the text-to-give process looks like in Canada: donor makes a SMS donation, donor receives an automated text asking them to confirm their donation by texting back ‘yes,’ donor texts back ‘yes’ to complete the transaction, and then an automated thank you text is sent.

You can also set up one additional automated text which then invites the donor to text a separate keyword to a different short code to receive updates from your charity. In the thank you to that opt-in to receive text updates, you can also give them a link to a mobile form where you can ask the donor to provide additional information about themselves.

Are you confused yet? Are you even following this process chain anymore? Wait till I tell you that all of these steps must be communicated in 90 characters or less!

Simply put, it’s too much work to opt-in. Donors don’t even realize why they should opt-in and they certainly don’t know that if they don’t opt-in they’ll never hear from your charity ever again. The end result is that you end up with a few (or many if you’re lucky) one-time donors.

Forget stewardship, renewal, upgrading or converting. Mobile is a one-hit wonder thanks to the opt-in restrictions.

Is there a future for mobile?

photo by samantha sea on flickr

Despite all of this, I remain hopeful and something tells me in my gut that there may yet be a promising future in mobile giving.

According to 2012 Mobile Giving Study, only 4% of mobile users have donated by text in Canada. That means that of the some 26 million mobile subscribers in Canada, 1 million have made a gift (the study referenced above only surveyed 2,000 respondents and it’s a little off as the Mobile Giving Foundation processed nearly $1 million in gifts last year, which would mean that less than 1% of Canadians with a cell had texted-to-give). Regardless, this certainly does indicate that there are a lot of people who have the potential to give via mobile.

Mobile has great potential outside of the ‘traditional’ emergency relief text-to-give campaigns (like the earthquake in Haiti or the tsunami in Japan). It’s a huge area of untapped growth and if we can ever get those pesky-opt in restrictions lifted, it will boom and you’d better be ready for that. While the Mobile Giving Foundation is working getting these opt-in restrictions changed, it’s a change that isn’t likely to happen anytime soon.

But there is a new development that holds promise.  If you were or weren’t at AFP Congress 2012, here’s a little insight from Andrew D’Amico over at ZipGive.  It’s been in the pipeline for a while and today it’s possible.  It’s called a flexible 5th message.

Right now after the donor has completed the text to donate, you only have two message options:

  1. Have the donor opt-on to receive text updates from your charity by texting a different keyword to a different short code (and it’s in the thank you here that you can direct them to complete the mobile opt-in form).
  2. Have the donor opt to make a recurring monthly gift.

Now, there’s a new option:

  1. Send the donor a flexible 5th message. This is a text where you can include whatever information or hyperlink you want within a 90 character limit.

The hitch is that you can only select one of the three options above. You can send either the short code opt-in, OR monthly gift, OR a flexible 5th message.

The flexible 5th is golden. You can use it how you wish. You’ve got a single text window of opportunity to connect with your donor or make a call to action.

You may want to consider linking to your mobile opt-in form. Or, you can direct the donor to a mobile website. You may also opt to engage the donor in an entirely separate campaign. While this doesn’t allow us to immediately contact the donor and integrate them into the other activities of our fundraising program, it does eliminate a huge barrier via the simplification of the opt-in process.

So my question to you is, which one of our organizations is going to use this feature to optimize mobile fundraising first? Let me know what you have up your sleeve. I’d love to hear from you.

Footnote: Mobile reading list from Congress 2012

[1.] For more benchmarks, stats, hot tips and the insider track on digital trends, including the power potential of mobile, the not to miss session was Beyond the Buzz Words: Social Media & Mobile Fundraising from Claire Kerr of Artez Interactive fame.  She’s kindly posted her deck over on SlideShare for you to peruse.

[2.] In her session on the context of a text message, Katherine Winchester from Mobile Giving Foundation Canada walked us through the 2012 Mobile Giving Study.  This is a must read to help you scope out some of the opportunities and limitations in mobile giving for Canadian Charities.

This article first appeared over at Charity Village as part of our series on Deconstructing Philanthropy and is also part of Good Works’ 2012 AFP Congress Round-Up series.  Don’t miss it as five members of our team share insights gleaned and lessons learned from this annual fundraising event.