The earthquake that hit Haiti on Jan. 12 is a tragedy of devastating proportions. The official death toll stood at 111,500 as of January 24, according to the Haitian government officials, with another 200,000 people reported injured. Just 132 people were pulled alive from collapsed buildings in the past two weeks. In addition to losing their loved ones and their homes, millions of Haitians also lack the basic necessities of life: food, water and clothing among them. It is a desperate situation.

Many of those who are following the disaster online or in print, by television or radio, would probably gladly give their right arm if they thought it would help. Failing that, there has been a generous outpouring of donations to a number of charities that are committed to providing assistance to the Haitian people. These charities include the Red Cross, Unicef, the Salvation Army, Oxfam, World Vision, Save the Children, CARE and the Yele Foundation.

The donations have been pledged via multiple channels, but what has been extraordinary about the fund-raising appeal for the survivors of the earthquake in Haiti is that SMS has taken center stage as a donation mechanism, especially in the US. By January 21, about $30m in donations had been promised to various charities by the US mobile subscribers of all four Tier 1 mobile operators, according to the Mobile Giving Foundation. Mobile users in the US have been able to text a keyword to numerous charities’ common SMS short codes, in order to pledge $10.

Donate to the DEC Haiti earthquake appeal

Similarly in Canada and the UK, mobile subscribers have also been able to donate CA$5 ($4.72) and £5 ($8.05) respectively by texting a keyword to a common SMS short-code. However it has not yet been confirmed how much has been raised in Canada, and it’s also not clear how much of the £42 million ($67.6m) that had been raised in the UK by Jan. 22 is via SMS donations alone since the UK’s Disasters Emergency Committee (DEC) is also enabling people to donate online or over the phone. Those mobile users wishing to donate by SMS to DEC can text the keyword “Give” to 70077 but, unlike in the US, standard SMS charges will apply since the UK mobile operators are not waiving charges. Indeed, only Orange UK is promoting a charity separately, enabling its customers to text “donate” to 864 233 in order to to send a £2.50 donation in aid of Unicef’s relief efforts in Haiti.

Using SMS to donate to a charity is not new, but up until the earthquake in Haiti it had not been well-used. Indeed, a recent global survey conducted by messaging infrastructure vendor Tekelec found that SMS donations was the least-used of six services about which it canvassed 500 users in September 2009. The other five services were news and sports alerts, reality-TV voting, entering competitions, paying for services and alerts on special offers. But the response to the Haiti appeal has certainly set the bar higher for SMS donations.

A number of factors have seemingly combined to drive SMS as an effective donations platform for charities in the US at this particular point in time, not least of which is the growing penetration of SMS use among mobile subscribers. Another key element is that there is a value chain for mobile giving already in place in the US, which was quickly able to swing quickly into action in order to respond to the emergency in Haiti. This value chain consists of the mobile operators, the Common Short Code registry (run by NeuStar on behalf of industry organization the CTIA), providers of mobile giving platforms including the Mobile Giving Foundation and Mobile Accord, and mobile messaging aggregator Mobile Messenger.

Also, the four Tier 1 mobile operators in the US all threw their considerable weight behind the promotion of the common SMS short codes associated with each of the charities, and in particular, the 90999 short code for pledges of $10 to the American Red Cross. Each of the US mobile operators has waived their SMS fees for the back-and-forth communications associated with setting up the SMS donations. That kind of in-faith attitude can only have helped US mobile subscribers to decide to give.

But Verizon Wireless has gone a step further, moving to address one of the pressing issues surrounding the delivery of aid to Haiti, and that is that pledges are quickly transformed into usable funds for the charities involved. By January 20, the mobile operator had advanced a total of $7.8m to the American Red Cross since it enabled SMS donations on January 13. Typically, it can take between two to three months for mobile donations to clear; Verizon is only waiving this process for the Red Cross’s Haitian appeal however.

The fact that the US cellcos have all set the pledge amount at a minimum of $10, chargeable to their subscribers’ mobile phone bills, will also have helped to quickly raise substantial funds. It is possible that even more funds could have been raised if subscribers were given the option to pledge amounts lower than $10, thus enabling even more subscribers to give.

The remarkable response to the call for SMS donations in the US serves to illustrate many things, of which generosity and good-will towards one’s fellow man are not the least. Clearly the mobile giving industry has tapped into a previously unmet desire by many people to donate to charitable causes using SMS, a channel that an increasing proportion of people find easy to use and which is provided by a trusted third party, that is, their mobile operator. It is those who are aided by charities that will benefit most from this welcome development.

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