What can you do with a mobile? Case studies from Advocacy, Service Delivery, and Fundraising

Posted by CorinneRamey on Jun 27, 2008

Note: This primer was written for the NTEN newsletter, targeted at a US audience and thus focuses on America. For more on mobile advocacy in many other parts of the world, see here.

The numbers speak for themselves: There are currently 236 million cell phone users in the U.S. – an astounding 76% penetration. In December of last year alone, 18.7 billion text messages were sent — up 92% from 9.7 billion in December 2005. Estimates for this year are topping 195 billion text messages sent in 2007. That is 600 million text messages a day. Nonprofits and advocacy organizations around the world are turning to mobile phones for advocating for issues and engaging constituents, for providing services, and even for fundraising.

Advocacy and Engagement

Mobiles are increasingly considered as part of advocacy and engagement strategies - or should be. For example, a study of text message mobilization efforts in the U.S. elections in November 2006 found that mobiles were an effective tool for get-out-the-vote campaigns. The study, conducted by researchers from Princeton and Michigan Universities, together with the US Student Public Interest Research Group (PIRG) New Voter Project and Working Assets, found that text message reminders to new voters increased an individual’s likelihood of voting by 4.2%. This is an increase similar to "quality phone call" reminders but, at only $1.56 per vote, at a fraction of the cost. In a follow-up survey, 59% of respondents found the messages helpful.

Human Rights Campaign, a nonprofit working for GLBT equality, has used mobile phones in its advocacy work in several ways. In December 2007, HRC launched a mobile version of its Corporate Equality Index, an SMS buyers guide that that brings instant information about businesses' support of gay and lesbian equality straight to mobile phones. The HRC guide, Buying for Equality, isn't new -- the organization has been releasing the guide since 2002 -- but this is the first year that HRC has made the guide mobile-friendly. To use the service, text "SHOP" and the name of a business to short code 30644. The service then responds with a text message with the business' corporate equality rating.

The mobile buyers guide is part of HRC's larger mobile strategy, which the organization began working on this past August. Currently, there are about 20,000 members in the HRC "Mobile Action Network." The organization sends out action alerts and has plans for other features -- such as polls and ratings for members of Congress -- that it may implement in the future. Text messages sent to the list have included a request to call Congressmembers regarding the Employment Non-Discrimination Act and a New Year's greeting sent at 12:01 on January 1.

Providing Nonprofit Services

Mobile phones have been widely used for service delivery and information as well. In California, mobile phones are helping police officers communicate with victims of domestic violence. When an officer goes to the home of a domestic violence victim who does not speak English, the officer and the victim pass a mobile phone back and forth, using the translation provided by a call-in service called Language Line. "A victim of domestic violence who didn't speak English as a primary language was meeting barrier after barrier in trying to get help," Jill Tregor, a Senior Policy Analyst with the San Francisco Department on the Status of Women, told MobileActive. The officers use phones donated by AT&T to call Language Line, a commercial service which provides translation in 170 languages. In San Francisco, where more than 30% of the population are immigrants and more than 100 languages are spoken, the mobile phone translation service has proved to be a useful and potentially life-saving tool.

Mobile phone helplines also contribute to the safety of people internationally. In the Philippines a program called SOS SMS uses text messages to connect Philippine migrants who are working overseas with resources and immediate assistance in emergencies. Philippine workers have faced all kinds of challenges working overseas, including verbal and physical abuse, rape, employers refusing to pay their workers, racial discrimination, kidnapping, and sex slavery. The workers need only to send a text message to the SOS SMS short code with the letters "SOS" and their name to activate a network of NGOs, government agencies, and migrant advocates that can collaborate to save lives.

A program in Mexico, called the Zumbido project, assisted people with HIV/AIDS through the support of a social network, brought together by text message. In the three-month pilot study, 40 HIV-positive Mexicans were given mobile phones and divided into four groups of 10 each. They were connected through a network, so that each text message that a person sent was received by every member of their 10 person group. Project coordinator Anna Kydd told MobileActive that HIV/AIDS patients face a variety of challenges in Mexico, including isolation, stigma, discrimination, and having to deal with emotional issues like telling their families that they have HIV. "Although medical treatment is free in Mexico, a lot of people still face lots of day-to-day challenges," she said. The participants said that they generally lacked the counseling and information, both medical and emotional, to deal with their illness. "It became obvious that the mobile phone had huge potential and value to create these networks," said Kydd.

Fundraising and Donations

Needless to say, fundraisers and nonprofits are salivating at the potential of reaching all of these people where they are, at the moment they are moved by a cause, and when they are able to GIVE – with their thumbs.

In America, the most visible and widely publicized campaigns have been those for disaster relief, notably the Asian Tsunami and fundraisers for Katrina victims and those of the California Wildfires. Mobile customers of participating mobile carriers could send a text message to the short code "2HELP" (24357) containing the keyword "Help" to make a tax deductible donation to the American Red Cross' relief efforts. As part of these special campaigns, the mobile carriers waived their usually high fees for so-called premium SMS.

In January, a mobile fundraising campaign sponsored by the United Way and National Football league ran ads during Superbowl Sunday asking users to donate via SMS to a campaign fighting childhood obesity. When mobile phone users texted the keyword "FIT" to shortcode "United" or "864833," a $5 charge was automatically subtracted from their cell phone bill. A minimum of $4.50 of each $5.00 donation went to support the United Way's programs. This is a much higher percentage of the contribution than for the usual text donation where up to 50% is eaten by the carrier, leaving little to the actual charity. Results were mixed -- only $10,000 was raised -- but it was the first foray into a new form of giving, facilitated with intermediaries like the Mobile Giving Foundation. The MGF is acting as a mobile donation gateway and has done a great deal of work to reduce the fee to now 10% directly to MGF. The MGF approves eligible nonprofit campaigns and acts as an intermediary between the nonprofit and the carriers. MGF rolled out in April and so far approved just a few mobile donation campaigns with many in the pipeline.

Internationally, there have been a variety of creative fundraising campaigns. Meir Panim, a network of soup kitchens in Israel, recently ran “SMS for Lunch”, a promotional interactive campaign. On their website a boy was seen, facing an empty plate. The site invited you to donate through SMS. The moment the system received the SMS, the banner changed: the plate filled and the boy smiled. The amount of the donation -- each SMS -- covers the cost of one meal for a child, according to the site. In Australia, a special exhibit called “The Human Zoo” - an experiment which places humans in animal zoo enclosures – allowed visitors to vote by text messaging for their favorite human beings with the proceeds of the premium SMS going towards the construction of a new enclosure (with animals, presumably).


With 3.5 billion mobile phones around the world, and more than three quarters of all Americans owning mobile phones, it truly is time for nonprofits to take advantage of this unique way to reach people. Although there have certainly been mobile campaigns that are more successful than others, with careful planning -- see "The DOs and DON'Ts of Mobile Advocacy" in this newsletter and the many resources on MobileActive.org -- nonprofits can use mobiles to connect with their constituency and run innovative and successful campaigns.

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