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Text Generation Leaders: Using Mobile Phones for Nonprofit Outreach

April, 2014

There are more people with cell phones than people who use Twitter . . . so then, why is there so much more nonprofit talk about Twitter than about reaching constituents and donors through their cell phones?

We talked with a non-neutral Doug Plank of MobileCause to learn more about the benefits of using cell phones to reach people. MobileCause provides services that make it easier for nonprofits to use mobile phones.

Q: Why should nonprofits read this article about cell phones, anyway?

A: People are connecting with you through their mobile phone whether you know it or not: 40% of people will experience your website for the first time through their phone, and 30% of all American adults read their email on their phones.

But we don't have anyone's mobile phone numbers! And they'll be mad if we call them!

First, you are not going to phone them. You are going to communicate with them by text. You are going to poll them, give them information that they've asked for, and thank them by text. And sometimes you will ask them to volunteer or give by text.

Probably the most important thing you can be doing now is building your list of mobile numbers so that in the future you can use mobile messaging to connect with your audience. The simplest method to getting them: wherever you already collect address and email information -- whether on a paper form, at an event, or on the web -- simply add "Mobile number: ______________." Most people will fill it in.

Don't people feel uncomfortable about giving out their mobile numbers compared with giving their home phone numbers?

That used to be the case, but now there's very little resistance to providing your mobile number. And don't forget that many more people now don't even have landlines.

Let's say we've now gathered a hundred mobile numbers. What do we do with them?

The first thing to do is run a poll. Ask a question that's pertinent: "We're trying to find out how many people would like our organization to focus more on national issues than on local issues? Reply text N for national; L for local." In a second text thank them for the feedback and let them know the results of the poll.

How long should a text be?

Try to stick to 140 characters or less, but no more than 200. If you go over 140 it opens another text window on the recipient’s screen.

So we've polled them and reported on the poll. What's the next text we send?

Mobile messaging is good for giving important updates, such as where the next concert will be or something that you've accomplished. For instance, the day after a fundraising event, text participants to share how much money you raised or how many people attended. As you grow your list you can occasionally send out special requests for donations, volunteers, and so forth.

A day or two after you've sent a text about something important you did, send a request for a donation to support that good work. The text can direct readers to a website or invite them to send in a check, and -- if you have the capability -- you can ask them to text a specific message to a certain number that will make a donation of a specific amount.

Do we also thank donors by text?

Yes, it's important to match how they made the donation. If someone makes a donation as a result of a text, text them right away with a thank you. A day or two later, send another thank you by email so they get two thanks. If they donated as a result of an email, send them a thank-you email right away, and then follow it up with a snail mail thank you.

How often should we text people?

It depends on your audience and your organization. Some ministries have a mobile list to which they text a health encouragement or a Bible verse every day. Other organizations might text once a week or once a month.

Isn't it expensive to send and receive texts?

Many people still believe it's cost prohibitive to send texts but most people now have unlimited messaging and it doesn't cost them to receive a message. 

What if we want to send different texts to different groups of people?

Just because people have given you their mobile numbers doesn't mean they all go on the same list. For example, you might add certain people to a donor list and others to a volunteer list. Sometimes you will text one list or another, and sometimes you will text both for a general communication. Or you can let them choose: "Text 1 to be notified of events, 5 to receive a daily health reminder, or 15 if you want both."

What's a good time of day to send texts?

The most important fact: texts have a 95% open rate. They peak in the morning before 10 a.m., then around lunchtime, and then in the late afternoon. Make sure you send your texts during waking hours: a text sent a night may wake up a now-unhappy donor.

What if someone wants to unsubscribe?

At the end of every text be sure to include "Reply text STOP to unsubscribe," or give them an easy way to do so. That's required.

Okay, you're convincing me. How do we build our initial list?

You have to give people a reason to want to be texted. For example, in your email, web, or print newsletter write: "We're building a mobile communication channel for monthly updates, critical information, and feedback. To join the channel, text PEP to 555-555-5555. We will not rent or give your number to anyone. We will not abuse your number. You can unsubscribe at any time by texting STOP in reply."

Should we ever call them on their mobile phones?

The only time we think it's okay to call a cell phone is if the person has made a pledge and it hasn't come through; in those cases a friendly reminder phone call is okay.

Should we ask for mobile numbers at an event?

Events can be really fun. In the invitation include, "Be sure to bring your cell phone!" This will catch people’s interest. At the event you can ask attendees to take out their cell phones and make a pledge. If you hook this up through your service you can show live on screen exactly how many people are responding and how much money you are raising.

How many texts a day do you get?

Well, I get on the lists of a lot of clients, so probably 40 a day.

What's the worst text you have ever gotten?

The worst text was when the sender used abbreviations I didn't understand. They were so committed to keeping the message short that it didn't make sense.

What are the other bad mistakes in nonprofit texting?

The second worst text is when it isn't clear whom it's from. Use the organization's name or a person's name if they're well known.

Third: don't send me a solicitation without some text that gives me a reason to donate. Build the case for a day or two. One day send me an update; two days later ask me for money.

Fourth: if I haven't heard from your organization in two or three months, don't send me a solicitation out of nowhere. Build the case in a text or two first.

I'm guessing your company provides services to nonprofits that want to do mobile messaging?

Yes. At MobileCause we have a full suite of services, including donation processing.

Editor's note: We recommend signing up for text messaging at a few nonprofits you support, and see what you like and don't like, and how they manage un-subscribing.

Doug Plank (photo) began talking on a Fisher Price telephone at the age of 2. He now finds his Droid X more useful in his role as Chairman/CEO and Founder of MobileCause, a California-based fundraising firm.


Check out Jan Masaoka at


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