Should You Not Donate by Text Message?

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We all have our excuses for not donating to disaster relief funds or to our favorite charities: We're broke, the donation process is too complicated, we lack the time to write and send a check, and so on. Mobile donating--giving money to an organization via text message--makes giving a little easier. But is it safe? And does it have a significant impact on the charity or the people in need?

Donating by cell phone is incredibly quick and easy: You just text a word (like ‘HAITI') or a number to a specific phone number, and a set amount is charged to your phone bill. Your carrier then delivers the funds to the charity. The mobile donation approach has been around for a couple of years, but it didn't really catch on until the 2010 Haiti earthquake. The American Red Cross's Haiti Relief and Development Fund, the most successful mobile campaign to date, raised more than $32 million within a month after the disaster.

Advocates say that mobile donations are an appealing option because they're convenient and offer instant gratification. The system also opens up philanthropy to individuals who might otherwise feel that they couldn't contribute. Younger audiences, for instance, appreciate being able to donate via text message because they don't need a credit card to do so.

Find a Legitimate Charity

Before you start texting away, though, make sure that you're donating to a legit nonprofit organization. If you're unsure about a charity, you can look it up on a watchdog site such as Charity Watch. Be wary of charities you've never heard of or organizations that contact you directly to get you to donate via text. Stick to the big-name charities, and you should be okay.

The Federal Trade Commission also advises prospective donors to give directly to a charity rather than to a group that solicits contributions on a charity's behalf. A group advocating for the American Red Cross, for example, will take a portion of the proceeds to cover its costs, leaving less of your donation for people in need.

Also try to determine whether normal texting rates will apply to your donation. During the Haiti crisis, most carriers waived texting charges for donations. It all depends on the carrier and on the charity you're giving to. In addition, make sure that you're committing to a one-time donation and not to a recurring one that will appear on your phone bill every month.

The biggest problem with mobile donations, though, isn't where the money is going, but how long it will take to get there. It might take only a few seconds for a donor to text ‘HAITI', yet the contribution might not reach the targeted relief agencies for a few months. Some carriers, such as Sprint, expedited their subscribers' donations to Haiti relief organizations. Normally, however, it takes roughly 30 to 60 days for the carriers to transfer donated funds to an agency.

In any event, mobile donations can do only so much. Carriers may impose limits on the amount and the number of times you can donate. For example, during the Haiti earthquake crisis, AT&T imposed monthly maximums of five donations of $5 or three donations of $10. If you're looking to make an impact, the best way is via a one-time lump-sum contribution to the charity's Website.

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