News Analysis: Is donating by text the nxt bg thng?

Although charities have had mixed results with it so far, text messaging is here to stay, writes Tony Hodson.

The news that the Charity Technology Trust has taken over the running of the mobile phone donation operator smstextgiving (Third Sector, 27 July) won't have registered too strongly on many radars within the voluntary sector. What it represents, however, is very significant.

After Radio Aid raised £3.3m for victims of the Asian tsunami in January, the penny began to drop with charities that donating by text message was an idea that had legs. William Hoyle, chief executive of CTT, confirms this. "We're receiving a stream of enquiries," he says.

So is text message giving the elusive 'next big thing' in fundraising?

Bristol-based learning difficulties charity the Home Farm Trust thinks not. Two years after setting up a text donation service through smstextgiving, it hasn't registered a single donation. "We promote it on our website," says Sam Rock, the charity's database manager. "But people will donate through the website if they were going there anyway."

Promotion is key

Breast Cancer Care, which set up an SMS donation service in April, reports a better record. "It's been going well," says head of corporate fundraising Marcus O'Shea. "But it swings on how much we promote it. If we don't tell people it's there, they can't use it."

Breast Cancer Care hooked up with cable TV channel Eurosport to promote its SMS service during coverage of the women's Euro 2005 football championship in June. At the campaign's peak, the charity received 600 texts a month.

When the promotions weren't running, this dropped to 40.

Hoyle isn't surprised. "Text messaging lends itself to particular types of promotional activity," he says. "If it's treated as a passive medium, you shouldn't be surprised if you don't get much by way of result. Success depends on the level of innovation and the way in which charities integrate the text capability into their overall fundraising strategies."

The use of text donations as part of a multifaceted campaign is something that Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of the Institute of Fundraising, is keen to encourage. "I think radio and SMS messaging can go hand in hand," he says. "Capital Radio's Help A London Child appeal had a very high pick-up of text donations. There's a synergy between audio media and getting something straight into your handset."

Boswell is leading the sector-wide campaign to pressure the big mobile networks into lowering their service charges so charities can recoup a greater proportion of each SMS donation. At present, O'Shea estimates that of a standard £1.50 text donation to Breast Cancer Care, the charity gets only 95p. He thinks it should see more. "We're not talking about eating into a mobile firm's core business," he says. "We're talking about charitable donations - the companies should look at restructuring their fees accordingly."

Progress on this front has been good. Boswell has been in talks with three of the major mobile networks in recent months, and reports that they have been very receptive. "We went to them at a time when they were under pressure from the media to do something about this - to consider charities as a special circumstance and at the very least look into providing a much more cost-effective rate," he says.

Boswell is a couple of weeks away from presenting the major networks with a proposal outlining a fairer deal for the sector, one he hopes will bring the fundraising ratios of text donations in line with other fundraising methods. He is reluctant to reveal exact figures, but Hoyle - who in his capacity at CTT is acting as a consultant to the proposal - describes a profit of £1.20 from every £1.50 text donation as "a more realistic total". Boswell deems this "a lot more competitive than the figures around at the moment".

Part of the mix

Whatever the upshot of the institute's proposal, it is likely that text messaging is here to stay as a fundraising tool, and O'Shea for one is certain of this. "We'll definitely stick with it," he says. "But it's going to be incorporated into everything we do. It will be something we chuck into everything as part of the mix."

'The mix' is a common thread - fundraising is increasingly being approached as a campaign on many fronts, and the development of mobile capabilities is just one more method of reaching potential supporters.

And not just as a tool for receiving donations. As Hoyle says: "It doesn't take much to imagine that as a supporter of, say, Oxfam, I could in a year or two receive a small video clip on my handset, allowing me to see the devastation in an African troublespot immediately. That would be a pretty powerful way of delivering a message to a donor."

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