January 12, 2012

Real Time Charitable Giving

Technology is increasingly relevant to Americans’ monetary contributions to the causes and organizations they support. Previous research from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project has found that one in five US adults (20%) have made a charitable contribution online, and that one in ten (9%) have made a charitable contribution using the text messaging feature on their mobile phone. Mobile giving played an especially prominent role during the aftermath of the January 2010 Haiti earthquake, as individual donors contributed an estimated $43 million to the assistance and reconstruction efforts using the text messaging feature on their cell phones.

This new mode of engagement offers opportunities to philanthropies and charitable groups for reaching new donors under new circumstances as messages spread virally through friend networks. At the same time, it poses new challenges, including the uncertainty in fund-raising groups about whether these new donors will remain engaged once they make their donation. In an effort to more fully understand the world of mobile giving, the Pew Internet Project, in partnership with the Berkman Center for Internet & Society at Harvard University and the mGive Foundation, and supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, conducted the first in-depth study of mobile donors. This report on those who gave to the “Text for Haiti” campaign is based on telephone surveys with 863 individuals who contributed money to the Haiti earthquake efforts using the text messaging feature on their cell phones, and who consented to further communications at the telephone number they used to make their donation. The margin of sampling error is ±3 percentage points based on Haiti text donors who consented to these additional communications.

Among the key findings of this research:

The ability to send small donations using mobile phones facilitates “impulse giving” in response to moving images or events

For a sizeable majority of the Haiti text donors surveyed, their contribution to earthquake relief was a quick decision in response to images they saw on television, and involved minimal background research. The vast majority of these donors (89%) heard about the Text to Haiti effort on television, and half (50%) made their contribution immediately upon learning about the campaign. An additional 23% donated on the same day they heard about it. In addition to conducting little research before making a donation, most have not paid close attention to the ongoing reconstruction efforts in Haiti—43% have been following these efforts “not too closely” and 15% have been following them “not at all”.

More generally, three-quarters of the Haiti text donors in this sample say that their text message contributions usually result from spur-of-the-moment decisions that do not involve a lot of additional research, while 21% say that they usually research their text contributions beforehand. Online donations tend to involve more deliberation, as half of these donors say that they typically do a lot of research before donating money online.

The typical Haiti text donor in our survey was a first-time mobile giver who made a single contribution to earthquake relief using his or her mobile phone

Three-quarters (74%) of Haiti text donors in this survey were first time mobile givers, meaning that their contribution to earthquake relief was the first time they had used the text messaging function on their phone to make a charitable contribution. Overall, 80% of the mobile givers in our survey donated to the earthquake recovery efforts using only their cell phones—and not using any other methods such as online contributions or in-person donations. About a third of them made more than one contribution for Haiti relief using their mobile phone.

A majority of the Haiti text donors in our sample have contributed to more recent disaster recovery efforts using their phones

More than half of the donors surveyed have made text message contributions to other disaster relief efforts since their Haiti donation. Two in five of these donors (40%) texted a donation to groups helping people living in Japan following the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, 27% texted a donation to groups helping people living in the US Gulf region following the 2010 BP oil spill, and 18% texted a donation to groups helping victims of the 2011 tornadoes in the United States. Taken together, 56% of Haiti mobile givers in our sample made a contribution to at least one of these events.

Charitable giving in the mobile age by these donors is a social networking activity, but more through in-person conversations than through online tools

Just under half (43%) of the Haiti text donors we surveyed, encouraged their friends or family members to make a similar contribution using their mobile phones. Overall, most of these efforts were successful—76% of these “encouragers” say that their friends or family members did indeed make a contribution to earthquake relief using their phones—and non-whites and young donors were particularly likely to spread the word among their friend networks.

Although technology helped facilitate their initial donation, the donors we surveyed were more likely to spread the word about their contribution through face-to-face conversations than through online means. Of those who encouraged a friend or family member to contribute, 75% did so by talking with others in person, and 38% did so via voice call. By comparison, 34% encouraged others to contribute by sending a text message, 21% did so by posting on a social networking site and 10% did so via email.

These mobile givers are willing to make donations in a number of ways—but prefer not to do so by making a phone call

Although donating to organizations or causes using text messaging offers advantages in terms of speed and convenience, the mobile givers we surveyed are divided when it comes to their preferred tool for making charitable contributions. Overall, text messaging (favored by 25% of these Haiti text donors) and online web forms (favored by 24%) are most preferred, followed closely by mail (favored by 22%) and in-person donations (favored by 19%). Voice calling stands out from the pack as the least preferred option: just 6% of the Haiti mobile givers we interviewed prefer making donations over the phone.

The Haiti text donors in this survey are similar to Americans as a whole when it comes to participation in social or civic groups and engagement with news, but differ when it comes to technology ownership

In this survey we looked at several dimensions of the lives of these givers. They stand apart from other Americans in that they have more technology in their lives, but their civic profile and their engagement with news mirrors the general population. They are not necessarily major donors in general, though almost all give at least something to other charities.

When compared with Americans as a whole, the Haiti text givers we surveyed are no more or less involved with charitable or non-profit groups—they are slightly more likely than average to belong to a community group or neighborhood association, but have similar levels of involvement with a range of other groups such as charitable or volunteer organizations, political parties, and environment groups. They also follow local, national and international news almost exactly as closely as the national average.

However, these donors are different when it comes to their technology habits, and are significantly more likely than US adults as a whole to:

  • Own an e-reader (24% do so, compared with 9% of all US adults), laptop computer (82% vs. 57%) or tablet computer (23% vs. 10%).
  • Use Twitter (23% of the Haiti donors we surveyed who go online are Twitter users, compared with 12% of all online adults) or social networking sites (83% vs. 64%).
  • Use their phones for activities such as accessing the internet (74% do so, compared with 44% of all adult cell owners), taking pictures (96% vs. 73%), recording video (67% vs. 34%) or using email (70% vs. 38%).

Mobile givers also differ in unique ways when compared with other types of charitable givers—in particular, they are younger and more racially and ethnically diverse when compared with those who contribute through more traditional means.

Cite this publication: Aaron Smith. “Real Time Charitable Giving.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (January 12, 2012) http://www.pewinternet.org/2012/01/12/real-time-charitable-giving/, accessed on July 23, 2014.