SMS Fundraising: Is it really the answer?

Many consider SMS to have eclipsed more traditional methods of marketing such as direct mail, voicemail, social media posts, newspapers or TV.  Although SMS is primarily used to reach customers for commercial purposes, it is apparently being adopted increasingly by non-profits for fundraising purposes.

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But how does SMS really work?  And is it effective?

What’s it all about?

SMS is an acronym which stands for “short message service”.   Simply put, they are text messages sent to a phone by a phone or computer.   Generally, all that is required is a catchy keyword (like SUCCEED or BUILD) to punch on a keypad, a short code number (like 33333) and a link to a secure and mobile-friendly donation page that donors use  by using their credit or debit cards.

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Proponents trot out all sorts of arguments and statistics to back up their claims.  Service providers such as the Canadian TTAG SystemsMobile Cause and Zip Give say their platforms make it fast and easy for donors to give to non-profits of all types and sizes.   The system does not require registration.  Texting is discreet and quicker than making a phone call. Messages can be delivered even if the phone is turned off or out of range once service has been restored.

And fees to the non-profits are low.  In addition, text messages are a useful tool for reaching existing and potential donors with customized content.  Donors can be apprised, for example, of progress being made at school by their “own” foster child, thus engaging donors and ensuring lasting loyalty  and repeat donations.

And 90% of the population have mobile phones.  Americans send and receive 32 texts per day.  98% of text messages are opened.  94% of smart phone users 70 and older are sending text messages on a weekly basis. 76% of supporters appreciate text messages and reminders, which encourages donors to come back and give again.  SMS is second only to web donations in the USA, although it is worth noting that SMS is not popular among Boomers and Matures.

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One use of  the SMS approach is where UNICEF is using test messaging to raise money for the children of Syria during the bloody and costly civil war (http://childrenofsyria.info/).

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So, what are the drawbacks?

I have to confess that I have never engaged in an SMS non-profit fundraising campaign, but as someone who has undertaken more traditional fundraising, particularly grants, I can offer some observations.

Before launching into these, I should say that my interest is as a non-profit fundraiser on behalf of non-profits in developing countries, where realities are quite different from what we experience in Canada.

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In no particular order:

  • the non-profits utilizing the service providers mentioned above are usually required to have their own subscriber lists from which solicitation can be undertaken.
  • Asking a developing country non-profit to develop a subscriber list of  Canadian phone numbers would be challenging but I could investigate having a Canadian partner act on their behalf to undertake this.
  • While American service provides argue that non-profits have  the authority to send text messages without receiving permission, I would need to investigate this in the Canadian context.
  • traditional means of promotion (such as media advertising, e-mails or direct mail) are  still required to reach potential donors in Canada not already on subscriber lists.  Or a Jumbotron will have to be used at a concert of sports venue to promote the campaign.  All of this will cost money up front, which developing country non-profits often do not have.
  • the non-profits may not have the expertise or budget (likely upward of $5,000 per annum) to maintain the fundraising campaign once it has been set up.
  • non-profit fundraising for a non-Canadian organization would not entitle donors to any tax benefits, which may be a significant deterrent; andperson holding black pen
  • the size of donations from the SMS approach is often relatively small ($5-$50) compared to funding potentially available through traditional granting sources, although admittedly the latter are difficult to obtain.  This would suggest the need for a comprehensive approach to fundraising utilizing various platforms.

From a technical perspective, Tiesha Whatley has identified various problems, not the least of which is that SMS technology can be easily attacked.  In addition, too many messages at once can overpower control panels and hinder users from receiving phone calls.  There is often a cost-per-call to users.  And there is frequently a long hold time before receiving messages. 

The above observations are drawn after a quick analysis and some very basic research.  But even some techies seem to recognize that the platform is not unanimously supported within the fundraising industry or might even be outdated. A Tech Soup Canada guru recently wrote in a somewhat apologetic and qualified tone, “Although there are many misconceptions around SMS marketing it is still (sic) an effective and affordable tool to reach donors.”

What do you think?  

Over to you now.  Have you ever used SMS as a donor or fundraiser?  If so, what was your experience like? Do you think SMS is an effective fundraising tool?  Could it be used by a developing world non-profit for fundraising among Canadian  donors?  Let me know what you think.