Over the past four or five years, the UK has witnessed huge growth in mobile phone use, text messaging in particular. Unsurprisingly, this excited many fundraisers - to begin with, at least. Here was a potential way of reaching new and younger donors. After all, texting is particularly popular among younger people, a donor group most charities are keen to target.
But the reality has proved very different to the dream. There have been successes, but there are also some key challenges. Today, most charities have a more pragmatic view of the benefits and limitations of SMS texting for fundraising. But they also have a growing recognition of its potential in other activities, such as campaigning or disseminating information to supporters and beneficiaries (see case study, below).
One of the main obstacles to using SMS as a medium for fundraising is the high charges levied by mobile phone operators, such as O2, Vodafone or Orange.
"Using SMS for fundraising is not as straightforward as you might think, because a whole range of people take a cut, of which the biggest is the mobile phone operator," says Megan Pacey, director of policy and campaigns at the Institute of Fundraising. Of a £1.50 donation, say, the charity gets only between 60p and 90p.
This system evolved so that operators could make big profits from commercial users, such as sex lines. "Charities are only a small part of the market, and so far we've been unsuccessful in our lobbying of the mobile phone industry for lower charges for charities," says Pacey.
Other limits include the fact that only small donations can be made, with the maximum set at £25. "Many charities see texting as a great idea, but when they look deeper they realise it doesn't stack up from the perspective of return on investment," says Pacey.
One possible way round the problem of high operator charges is to use the much cheaper service provided by Norwegian telecoms company LUUP, which was launched in the UK in 2006.
The institute has been working with LUUP, says Pacey, to increase awareness of the service in the charity sector. Nathan Jackson, UK director of the company, says it is now actively marketing the service to a wide range of merchants, which will bring in more consumers. Among the charities LUUP has been working with are Amnesty International, he says.
But one potentially prohibitive issue surrounds the offering. To use LUUP, donors need to set up an 'electronic wallet', linked to their credit card or bank account, in order to send cash. The extra time required to do this could discourage potential donors from participating.
And that's not the only problem facing text messaging: as technology continues to evolve, it is possible that SMS will be replaced by other technologies.
"It's probably the least advanced thing you can do on a mobile, given that you can now get access to the internet," says Pacey. "Phones are getting more and more sophisticated."
One way forward may lie in using SMS for contacting supporters, rather than for fundraising, says Clara Avery, head of direct marketing and sales at Macmillan Cancer Support.
Interestingly, Macmillan did try experimenting with fundraising using wireless, or WAP, technology, which allows mobiles to connect to the internet. The charity ran display advertising in newspapers with a variety of different response mechanisms, including a text short code. The idea was to encourage people to donate by SMS and to complete Gift Aid declarations using the mobile internet.
"The campaign didn't generate enough new supporters or sufficient donation levels to warrant us running it again on a larger scale," says Avery. But the charity did learn a lot about using WAP technology for donation administration purposes, and it was the first charity to use WAP for Gift Aid declarations.
Avery says: "It may be an increasingly effective way for us to communicate with existing supporters and administer their gifts. The immediacy of response the mechanism offers still has masses of untapped potential for campaign fund-raisers, catalogue requesters, event registrants and so on."
CASE STUDY: GREAT SCOPE FOR TEXT
Using text messaging to disseminate information to disabled people, particularly younger ones, is the goal of a recent initiative at disability charity Scope.
Last November, it launched a free service that encourages disabled people who want information or advice to contact Scope by text.
Steve Cairns, head of the Scope Response service, says: "We're constantly seeking to improve access to our information and advice for disabled people and their families. People could already contact us by phone, internet or email, but we felt that including text would widen it even further and perhaps encourage more younger people."
He adds that many younger people are more comfortable communicating by text than in other ways. "We're always trying to extend our reach, and using text is speaking to young people in their language. I like it; it feels like we're on an equal footing."
That said, the main limitation of text messaging, according to Cairns, is that longer and more complex responses cannot be easily communicated.
"If it's a complex enquiry, we will suggest that we continue by phone or email after the initial text communication," he says.