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Sending out an SMS: Ideas and Research for Nonprofit Use of Mobiles


In June, nfpSynergy released a report called "Sending out an SMS: The potential of mobile phones for charities and nonprofits" in collaboration with Charities Aid Foundation. It covers public perception & use of mobiles, charity use of mobiles, and barriers to use of mobile by charities. The report is packed full of research and case studies that explain how other charities have been successful with mobile (everything from SMS for crisis counselling to smartphone apps and mobile websites). The research is focused on the UK, however many of the findings and lessons are equally applicable in Canada.

Here are a few of the points that I found particularly interesting:

  • Mobile phoneIn the UK, pretty much everyone (96% of the people surveyed) owns a mobile phone, and ownership is pretty similar across age brackets. In other words, not only does your teenager have a mobile phone, but so does your mom and grandma.
  • Samaritans, a confidential emotional support service, started using SMS as a way of providing support (in addition to phone and email). They found that the service was very popular and that from an operations perspective it had some differences from email and phone. Specifically, people who texted were more likely to be in an urgent situation requiring a faster response, so they immediately send an auto-reply informing the sender that they will receive a message within 60 minutes (as opposed to 12 hours for email). Once the reply is sent, the conversation is more like phone than email, with many messages sent back and forth in a short period of time.
  • 15% of people surveyed said they would be willing to donate via SMS - not a large number, but up from previous years.
  • Remember that texting is mostly a personal matter. Make sure people who give you their mobile number actually want you to text them: “I think the constant opting in is really important because it's a very personal space. I don’t want to look at my phone expecting a message from my son only to find it’s something uninteresting from my mobile network. So charities need to be really careful to ensure people are opting in to receiving information by text message.” - Stuart Newstead, mobile consultant
  • NCT, the UK's largest parenting charity, created an iPhone app to make it easier for parents to find a baby changing table close by. They worked hard to get the app pre-populated with good data and also allow parents to add other change table spots they find (for example at the local cafe) and rate the cleanliness of change tables.
  • Why not send a quick text message thanking a first time volunteer or new donor? It's always nice to get a timely thank you that doesn't have another ask attached.
In summary, mobile has a lot of potential for nonprofits, given how ubiquitous they are.
“If a charity is feeling cautious about using the mobile phone, then I would remind them that everyone’s mum has a mobile phone. Everyone is so familiar with mobile phone technology so don’t worry about trying out something new – because ultimately it’s not a new technology, it’s a tried, tested, and trusted technology.” - Stuart Newstead, mobile consultant

Just like social media, however, look for ways to use mobile other than just asking for donations. Think about how, when and why you would think it was ok for a charity to connect with you on your personal mobile phone. And when you do start using mobile, let it be driven by your mission (like the Samaritans and NCT).