Haiti Earthquake Provokes Wave of Text Donations

Red Cross donations made by texting reach $5 million, as the campaign to raise money for Haiti relief efforts goes viral in an always-connected society

Text donations have hit prime time. In the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that hit Haiti on the evening of Jan. 12, Americans were texting their support big-time. In less than 48 hours, donations to the American Red Cross—made by texting HAITI to 90999—had reached $5 million, and donations were reported to be coming in at a rate of $200,000 per hour. That's more than 12 times the amount that donors had sent by text in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

Each HAITI text provides $10 to the organization. The charge is added to the donor's phone bill.

With money still pouring in—and without even accounting for additional funds texted through campaigns by Yéle, Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean's foundation (text YELE to 501501); Doctors Without Borders (DOB to 90999); the Clinton Foundation's Haiti Relief Fund (HAITI to 20222); and others—those mobile donations had already surpassed texted monies for all causes in all of 2009. Among the likely reasons for the outpouring is the near-ubiquity of text-capable phones and the expansive social networks that have allowed the donation campaign to go viral.

"It is the perfect tool for the Twitter generation," says Lucy Bernholz, president of Blueprint Research & Design, a consulting firm for philanthropic institutions and individuals. After all, text is just about instantaneous and the amount you're sending, typically $5 or $10, is minimal. "The outpouring of support is great, but people lose interest [in disasters] really quickly," Bernholz adds. "There is a question of whether this text exacerbates that—that you give your 10 bucks and move on."

Total Effect Unclear

It's unclear yet whether the text campaigns will succeed in raising more money overall for Haitian relief efforts by convincing the younger generation to give, or whether the phenomenon represents a shift in the way people give, rather than an expansion of generosity. Another open question is whether individuals who have access to corporate matching contributions—thus doubling the impact of individual donations—will bother to do so with the text donations. (Some corporate matching funds won't match donations under a certain amount.) "We don't have benchmarks for this yet," says Katherina Rosqueta, executive director of the Center for High Impact Philanthropy at the University of Pennsylvania. "The power is in the scale."

For those who want to donate to Haiti, the bigger question is not whether to do so by text, online, or phone, but where to give so that your money can do the most good. In a catastrophic situation such as this, Rosqueta notes, the groups that can do the most good are those that can respond immediately, that are already on the ground or can get there quickly, and that have experience in disaster relief.

The center's recommendations include Partners in Health, Hôpital Albert Schweitzer, Doctors Without Borders, UNICEF, Catholic Relief Services, and the Red Cross.

Philanthropy researcher GiveWell, which does rigorous research on charities, and recommends just nine of the nearly 400 groups it has looked it, also points to Partners in Health. As Bob Ottenhoff, president of GuideStar, the charity information clearinghouse, puts it: "People see those pictures on TV and want to do something. But you want to support charities that have experience in disaster relief and in Haiti because this is a difficult environment."

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