Donating by Text: Haiti Fundraising Goes Viral

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Beau Lark / Corbis

The first tweet came through just two hours after the massive earthquake devastated Haiti's capital early Tuesday evening: "Please text 'Yéle' to 501501 to donate $5 to Yéle Haiti. Your money will help with relief efforts. They need our help." Sent from the Twitter account of Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean, the text message went out to the singer's nearly 1.4 million followers and kicked off what has quickly become the largest text-based fundraising campaign for disaster relief in history. An American Red Cross text-donation campaign, which was launched an hour after Yéle's, had raised more than $800,000 by 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Text-based fundraising is all about immediacy. You don't need to wait until you get home and turn on the computer. Simply enter a five- or six-digit code into your cell phone, along with a single word in the body of the text, such as "Haiti." You don't even need to plug in your credit-card info — the donation amount is simply added to your next phone bill. It's all so quick and convenient, you can give in the moment. There's no chance of you forgetting to do it later.

Plus, when you find out about a cause by getting a text message from a friend, you're more likely to trust it and feel a sense of community by giving. Mary South, an editor in Brooklyn, N.Y., says she decided to donate $10 by text to the Red Cross on Wednesday afternoon after she read a friend's post about it on Facebook. "I thought, If everyone else is doing it, then I can too," says South, who says she gives to other nonprofits online but had never donated via text message. "When you see that kind of devastation, you want to do something," she adds.

"The viral aspect of mobile is key," says Tony Aiello, business-development director of Mobile Accord, a Denver company that serves as a financial clearinghouse between cell-phone carriers and dozens of nonprofits ranging from Farm Aid to Mothers Against Drunk Driving.

"This is the first time there has been a major disaster when this type of service has been widely available," says Yéle Haiti executive director Hugh Locke, whose nonprofit will use the funds to send nutrition bars, candles, hand-cranked flashlights and blankets to Haiti on two FedEx planes this Friday. "People want a sense of participating in the response. There is an emotional need to do something," he adds.

For the Haiti crisis, Yéle's technology partners Mobile Giving and Give on the Go have waived their typical waiting period of two weeks to deposit the donations. Firms like Mobile Accord — which manages the Red Cross system, among others — pay out donations on a quarterly basis, after customers have paid their cell-phone carriers and those companies have forwarded the money, 100% of which goes toward relief efforts.

As with any kind of giving, it's wise to verify that the cause you are donating to is a legitimate organization before pledging funds. This is especially true when you learn of a nonprofit on Facebook, where phishing and other scams can give the impression that your friends are sending out links, when really a spammer has hijacked their identity.

Legitimate organizations send a confirmation text moments after you donate to verify that you really want to give the amount specified, typically $5 or $10. If you say yes, then the amount will appear on your next cell-phone bill. If you did not intend to donate, you can cancel your pledge. While the cell-phone bill serves as a receipt for tax purposes, donors to causes sponsored by Mobile Accord can also print out a list of all their donations in a given year from the company's MGive site. Most text-based services will also let you sign up for tweets to learn how donations were spent. That kind of accountability may give you the peace of mind that your impulse give actually made a difference.