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Texting and giving: How five bucks and two seconds spur Haiti relief

A customer deposits money for a Haiti relief fund at a LCBO liquor store in Toronto.

DAVE CHAN/dave chan The Globe and Mail

Just five digits and five dollars.

Not a big commitment to the earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, Sara Chappel thought when she texted "HAITI" into her cell phone.

"It was two seconds out of my life and five bucks out of my wallet," says the 34-year-old.

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The Dundas, Ont., account manager, who had never donated to a relief effort before, came across the American Red Cross ad on Facebook. It spurred her to seek out a Canadian equivalent, since the federal government has pledged to match donations. She found the Salvation Army's Text to Donate program and sent two $5 texts.

"It was a pretty painless process," she says.

With the surge of bite-sized donations of $5 to $10, the Haiti earthquake relief effort has become the first major natural disaster that's seen notable support from micro-donations. The small dollar amounts given via text message or by prompts from a cashier are driving support, aid organizations say, by playing on the mantra of "every little bit helps." They're also yielding donations from people who might not have given otherwise.

Micro-donations, especially those via text or online, appeal to Canadians because they're immediate, easy and don't require a large financial commitment, says Michael Hall, vice-president of research at Imagine Canada.

"It encourages people to give on the spot rather than think, 'How am I going to afford this,' " he says. "Certainly through social networks, you can very easily promote the opportunity [to donate]"

He says the environment for micro-donations didn't exist in 2004 when Indonesia was hit by a devastating tsunami. The text-to-donate infrastructure launched in 2008, when the Seattle-area based Mobile Giving Foundation started helping charities receive donations via text message, says its chairman and CEO Jim Manis.

"What's taking place is really a sea change in terms of the face of philanthropy," he says, adding that his foundation just launched in Canada last September. "When you enable micro-donation, whether it be a five dollar or 10 dollar donation, it's small. But it's still meaningful to many people."

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As of Friday, the American Red Cross effort had amassed $8-million in SMS donations since the earthquake hit. The Canadian Salvation Army text campaign has raised over $120,000 so far through (it also links to PLAN Canada, World Vision and Bill Clinton's Clinton Giustra Sustainable Growth Initiative. Apple's iTunes store launched a fundraising page for Haiti, where users can click to donate anywhere from $5 to $200.

But micro-donations aren't just for the texting set. Since Friday, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario has raised $126,000 by asking customers at its 610 stores to donate $2 to the Canadian Red Cross at the cash register. It's the first major relief effort for which the LCBO has used the prompted donation method - Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children and Mothers Against Drunk Driving have benefited for two years. Stores also have donation boxes.

While making larger donations online (the Red Cross has received 81 per cent of its Haiti relief dollars this way), pledging by phone or writing a cheque are still reliable ways to raise money, micro-donations reach the younger set and those who don't have the funds to sacrifice a big part of their budget, says Steven Theobald, spokesman for PLAN Canada, which is also using the Text to Donate method. The text component speaks to young people in their language, he adds, and may also inspire them to be more socially aware.

"If you're 16 watching all this horror on television and you see all these donation forms that start at $100, it's just really, really intimidating," he says. "The message we're telling them is it doesn't matter - $5 makes a huge, huge difference."

Charities can even thank President Barack Obama for popularizing micro-donations, says Owen Charters, executive director of Canada Helps, an online portal to charitable donations. Mr. Obama's 2008 election campaign asked donors to just give $5 and in turn, ask five friends to donate the same amount.

"It isn't just you need to get donors, but you need to turn your donors into some kind of fundraiser," he says, adding that the social trust component helps engage people with the cause.

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Donating via text message is also a very private act, he adds, not unlike how church congregants hide their donations in envelopes when the collection plate comes around. However, being directly asked at a store counter, brings public shaming into the picture.

For a life-and-death situation such as the relief efforts in Haiti, micro-donations via text very quickly tap into a person's empathy, says Mr. Charters. The American Red Cross solicited donations by tugging on the heartstrings of NFL playoff viewers on Sunday afternoon.

"I think people are overwhelmed by choices," says Mr. Charters. "It's very much a spontaneous thing and you give because someone asks you."

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