Radio and Text Donations: "This American Life's" Experience with Mobile Giving

Posted by AnneryanHeatwole on Apr 14, 2010

We’ve written before about mobile giving during disasters, and the dramatic results such campaigns can have. But mobile giving can be used for non disaster-related fundraising drives as well and This American Life, a show on the US public radio network, is one of the latest organizations to embrace this trend.

The weekly radio show tells stories about the experiences of everyday people and is distributed by Public Radio International, attracting 1.7 million listeners each week. It is also distributed as a free podcast with 600,000 weekly downloads, creating significant bandwidth charges. This American Life holds twice-yearly pledge drives in order to defray the costs of the podcast and online streaming, and to cover some of the cost of producing the show itself. During the fundraising drive last December the show incorporated a mobile giving component for the first time. 

Seth Lind, production manager for This American Life, says that the show took an experimental approach to their first foray into mobile giving:

We were mostly just curious to see what would happen. Our theory was that the ease of giving that way would be really attractive to people, coupled with the fact that a lot of people are listening to the show, or the podcast, on a device they can text with. Our traditional way of asking for donations on a podcast was sending people to a website – if you’re out jogging, you’re not really going to do that. But if you’re out jogging listening to the show on your iPhone or another smartphone that plays media, maybe you would stop and take the 30 seconds or less to send a text. We thought that it could lower the bar for people and make it a lot easier to donate.

The campaign, which is still live although not being actively promoted, has so far raised $142,225 from 28,445 individual donations. To contribute, users text the word "LIFE" to a short code (a five-digit number), and a $5 charge is added on to their monthly mobile phone bill. Set up by Mobile Commons, a company that offers a mobile marketing platform and works with many nonnprofit organizations in the US, the system is designed to take advantage of the mobile and media aspect of This American Life.

Lind pointed out that This American Life and mobile giving are an obvious match. The communications nature of the show, and the fact that listeners who use mobile devices are already generally tech savvy, mean that listeners were a prime audience for a mobile giving campaign. He says, “I think that a media product like ours, it’s ideally situated for something like this.  […] What we make is communications, so it’s normal for us to communicate with people.” The campaign was promoted primarily through appeals from host Ira Glass at the beginning of the podcast, and with banners on the website and a Facebook widget.

Lind added that he thought the campaign was successful because it doubled the number of individual people donating (20,000 people donated in June 2009; in the December 2009 campaign, more than 40,000 people had donated either online or via mobile). However, because the donations via mobile were a flat $5, the total raised in the December campaign was roughly equal to the total raised in the previous campaign even with more people donating. Lind noted that listeners giving online could donate any amount they wanted, and thus tended to give much higher amounts than the flat $5 the mobile donations brought in. 

To incease the total, mobile donations will be set at $10 when the next fund drive begins in June 2010. Lind says he hopes that the mobile donations system will continue to bring in large numbers of givers, and that those higher numbers will allow This American Life to make up the difference between online and mobile giving. He explains, “With the text giving, you [could] only give $5. So we actually raised about the same amount of money total, but we got it from a lot more people – which I consider a good thing. We would rather have a whole bunch of people give a small amount of money compared to fewer people having to give more money. But in order to have this be really successful, we’re going to try to have this at the $10 level.”

Another challenge faced by This American Life, other than the lower money amounts brought in by mobile donations, is that the funds are not available instantly to the program the way online donations are. The online donations come directly from credit cards, so they can be used right away; mobile donations take longer, being processed by the carriers and intermediaries before the reach the organization.

Lind mentioned that users remarked about how easy it was to use the mobile giving system, and that the program brought in an entirely new group of donors who may not otherwise have contributed. He added that although there wasn’t a target audience in mind when This American Life started its mobile giving campaign, the gains in the number of people donating is a positive sign for the future of mobile giving. He notes,

We had a sense that there are a bunch of people out there who want to give who don’t use our website, who just download the podcasts. […] This is just a way for people who don’t use our website to give. And while there was some poaching of people who would have otherwise given on the website, it is largely a new group of people – like I said, it doubled the number of people giving.

According to Lind, this mobile campaign was just the start of This American Life’s use of mobile technology.  The show also plans to launch an interactive text-based campaign for sponsors and develop smartphone applications. He says, “We are going to keep doing this. I think it’s really smart to be thinking about mobile technology in general. We just released an iPhone app to have mobile access to our entire archive. And people thanked us for making it easier for them to donate, which was really cool.”


Anne-Ryan Heatwole is a writer for

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