Fundraisers are always looking for the next great solicitation tool that can help bridge the gaps they face and achieve their objectives, and rightly so. Funding needs are greater than they have ever been and most non-profit institutions are being asked to do more with less. Higher education is certainly no exception. Within the last several years, we’ve seen organizations like the Red Cross use text-in campaigns as an opportunity to raise needed funds following a disaster. By texting a code word to a pre-determined 5 digit number the cell phone subscriber can donate a $5 or $10 amount to the organization that is soliciting funds. But as a recent article in the New York Times suggests, using text messaging for solicitation purposes may not be a viable tool for most other non-profits. [i]
In our world of higher education development, the methods used by the Red Cross and other national organizations are almost unrealistic, mainly due to logistical challenges in advertising the campaign and motivating people to get involved. Even if our creative marketing staffs were to consistently find a way to accomplish this task, there are other serious obstacles in the way of making this a useful solicitation tool.
Three significant challenges to using mass text-in campaigns in college and university annual giving programs:
1) Gift Size
In the current state, text campaigns are limited to asking for donations of just $5 and $10. In the world of higher education development, asking for such small gift sizes is a flawed strategy.[ii] Today’s typical development office relies on the annual fund for two main reasons- alumni participation and leadership gift cultivation. Asking for small gifts accomplishes the first but not the second. In fact, these token amounts do little to build donor loyalty and could actually diminish the chances of receiving larger gifts from these same constituents. But even if alumni participation is the only focus for the institution, how much education for future donor retention purposes can be accomplished by a texting campaign? The proof will be to review the statistical performance of these small donors in the year after their contribution, through both subsequent text campaigns and other solicitation channels.
2) Cost and Return on Investment
As the New York Times article suggested, the cost to start a texting campaign similar to those we see for disaster relief efforts is substantial. To purchase a code number and establish a code name is currently around $12,000. [iii] This means that if you average the highest possible gift size of $10, you would need 1,200 donors giving via text to break even. A total sum that averages less than $10 means even more donors are needed. The potential return on investment is not feasible for the vast majority of colleges and universities given that formula. If used strictly as a donor acquisition campaign where a return on dollars is not expected, then perhaps it has some value. But again, donor education, retention, and cultivation for subsequent years is a big question mark.
3) Recording of Gifts
Perhaps the single largest hurdle in soliciting for gifts via text in higher education development is the need to record these gifts in databases and provide a receipt to the donor for tax purposes. Currently, cell phone companies do not itemize their records to show which subscriber gave and how much they donated. They simply write one big check to the organization that purchased the code. This lack of specificity is a major cause of concern for advancement services staffs who are charged with recording gifts properly in development systems. Without the ability to itemize, there will be no record of the transaction, no opportunity to solicit this person again in future years with knowledge of the gift they made, and perhaps even legal issues due to the improper allocation and receipting of the incoming donations. Until this issue is solved by the cell phone providers and mobile intermediaries, using this tool for higher education fundraising is a non-starter.
The Long-Term Possibilities of Text Messaging
Just because these problems currently exist does not mean that text messaging in general has no place in future solicitation calendars as a viable tool. In fact, texting may be a nice complement to your existing solicitation tools, in particular the phonathon. RuffaloCODY’s MASTERS Program for On-campus Phonathon Management is using text messaging as a cross-media tool to complement telephone outreach efforts on campus from student callers. Text-to-Connect is a cost-efficient stewardship tool that can help keep constituents in touch with the annual giving office. By opting-in to receive text messages, alumni, parents, and friends can stay connected by receiving such information as alerts to campus events, RSVP opportunities to reunion activities in their area, and links back to the website to update demographic information and read e-newsletters. Even if no money changes hands, text messaging as an outreach tool has value because it helps an institution maintain contact and build relationships with their constituents, which in turn has a direct impact on giving rates for future campaigns.
The future of text messaging as a solicitation tool in higher education is still not completely clear. However, because texting is becoming a standard practice across all age demographics, it stands to reason that organizations and institutions will continue to push the envelope and find creative ways to incorporate this tool into the fundraising portfolio. Yet, until the specific challenges that I outline above are solved, mass solicitation campaigns like those the Red Cross uses are most likely not a good fit for higher education organizations.
For more information on RuffaloCODY’s comprehensive MASTERS program, go to www.ruffalocody.com/masters
To read the entire New York Times article, click on the following link: http://www.ruffalocody.com/on-campus-phonathon-management/resources/articles