It’s only a text away?

Only two hours after the massive earthquake devastated Haiti’s capital early on a Tuesday evening, the following tweet was sent from Haitian-born musician Wyclef Jean’s account. “Please text ‘Yéle’ to 501501 to donate $5 to Yéle Haiti. Your money will help with relief efforts. They need our help.”  This tweet went out to the singer’s nearly 1.4 million followers and kicked off what quickly became 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 (Hamilton, 2010).  This is more money than many small charities could raise in a year.

Whether it’s an earthquake in Haiti, a tsunami in Japan or a hurricane on the Jersey Shore, texting has certainly established a place in the fundraising world over the last several years.

Text-based fundraising is all about immediacy (Hamilton, 2010).  This is one of the reasons why it’s so effective for disaster relief efforts.  By sending a simple text message you can immediately have an impact on a life of another.  There is no longer a need to pick up the phone or go home, turn on the computer and enter a credit card number on a donation page.  At a touch of a button you can instantly make a donation that will appear on your next telephone bill.  I mean, you have to pay it at the end of the month anyways right?

Would every potential donor choose to donate via text message?  Probably not.  It might have something to do with level of comfort with technology, company policies or simple demographics.  However, this is why Telethon’s, direct mail pieces and other solicitation tactics continue to be front and center in today’s fundraising environment.  Although text-based fundraising is quick and convenient, it’s not for everyone.  Does that mean that text-based fundraising is less important?  Absolutely not.  This is where the idea of Narrowcasting comes into play.

Paul de Gregorio, head of mobile at Open Fundraising, believes that charities need to “engage with text” in order to reach the next generation of donors, even if it means they don’t find out much about those donors (Charity Technology News, 2012).  While several reports support the use of SMS Marketing or “narrowcasting”, many charities continue to shy away from text-based fundraising due to the inability to collect donor information.  Charities tend to focus too much on the ability to reconnect with, or “steward”, a donor when developing fundraising campaigns and marketing strategies.  Is this wise?  Well let’s think about it for a minute.  If an 18-year-old boy decided to send a $5 SMS text gift to support a cause based on a tweet or campaign would this be considered a less effective form of fundraising?  Would your charity have received this boy’s donation had there not been a texting option?  What’s more important to the charity?  The $5 or the ability to follow-up?  Although $5 might not seem like a lot of money on it’s own, if 1,000 18-year-old boys all decided to donate $5 via SMS text, a charity might start to reconsider its position.  How important is the ability to follow-up?  And does that trump the acquisition of additional donors and funds for your cause?

Narrowcasting marks an emerging trend by which organizations and brands are sharing content with smaller, more selective audiences (Charity Technology News, 2012). This could mean a group of teenagers or donors who have given over $10,000 in the last year.  Unlike broadcasting, narrowcasting is about tailoring information to better compel recipients (T, 2012). This could be anything from personalizing information based on a campaign they supported in the past to welcoming them into a special donor club.  Regardless, narrowcasting is a competitive alternative, as demonstrated by this infographic from Morgreet.


While broadcasting gets a brand’s message out to a massive group of people, when it comes to who is actually reading and engaging with the content, the numbers are staggeringly low (Charity Technology News, 2012).  After all, content is only great if someone is consuming or engaging with it.

Charity appeals featuring singular targets lead people to help others more because they make the victim more vivid (Barasch & Berger).  This is particularly true in email direct marketing appeals, another example of how charities can narrowcast.  E-mail direct marketing is great because most lists are compiled of existing donors and others who have already expressed interest in your charity. Messages can be tailored to specific groups of donors and their past activities.  Like text messages, this will tend to result in higher open and engagement rates.

“Organizations in the worlds of the arts, media, education, museums and so on, can all now create and distribute their own public service content” (Bazalgette, 2009).  This is also true for charities.  The question is, where and how should they be distributing their content?

So is it only a text away?  In many cases, yes.  Text-based fundraising is a great example of how narrowcasting can give a charity the ability to communicate more effectively and share messages directly with a smaller group of people.  Is the most effective method of narrowcasting always going to be via text message?  That will ultimately depend on your target audience.


Barasch, A., & Berger, J. Broadcasting and Narrowcasting: How Audience Size Impacts What People Share. University of Pennsylvania.

Bazalgette, P. (2009, February). Public service narrowcasting. Prospect Magazine (155) , 38-40.

Charity Technology News. (2012, July 27). Retrieved March 20, 2013, from How can you increase your donations through SMS Text Messaging and JustGiving?:

Hamilton, A. (2010, January 13). Donating by Text: Haiti Fundraising Goes Viral. Retrieved March 20, 2013, from TIME:,28804,1953379_1953494_1953528,00.html

Jackson, J. D., Nielsen, G. M., & Hsu, Y. (2011). Mediated Society: A Critical Sociology of Media. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

T, R. (2012, July 16). Narrowcasting: The Power of Text Marketing. Retrieved March 20, 2013, from CallFire:


About Stephanie

Marketing and Communications Professional, BBA, MA (Communication), Dancer, Travel Enthusiast, Disney Fanatic, RunDisney Addict, Mom
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