The Price of Giving

Red CrossWhen thinking about companies who are really leveraging mobile to muscle-up their marketing, the Red Cross probably isn’t the first name that comes to mind.  Or anything, really, ending in “.org.”

But then look at the “Text 2Help” program, which the Red Cross established in response to Hurricane Katrina, and promoted earlier this month at the big CTIA wireless industry trade show in Orlando.  Mobile users simply enter the code 24357, or 2HELP, to make a $5 donation to the Red Cross for natural disasters.  

Importantly, the $5 contribution limit was selected for much the same reason any other marketer would: engagement.  The real power of mobile right now is to capture the user as they’re out in the world—to get them to immediately move on your call-to-action.  A low dollar figure like $5, it was determined, would facilitate impulse donations; sort of an electronic stand-in for passing the bucket.  (In fact, it’s better than a bucket, because this one can carry $100,000—which is the amount the Red Cross has been able to collect so far).

Wonderful idea, right?  Not if you ask the Foundation for Taxpayer and Consumer Rights.

What rankles the FTCR is that since donations are capped, each $5 contribution incurs standard text messaging fees, which generally run 15 cents. “If you want to contribute $20, you have to send four text messages, and you’ll be billed for four text messages,” complains Jamie Court, president of the group. “These contributions are structured so that consumers who want to give more pay a higher price for doing so.”

In this $3.50-a-gallon-for-gas era, people are quite understandably price sensitive, all agreed.  But should we really be up-in-arms here about a $20 charitable donation that quietly becomes $20.60?  This represents a nominal 3% increase, if you wanted to do the math.  (And if we were actually “buying” something, that number would jump up to $21.65 when you figure in standard California sales tax).

David S. Diggs, executive director of the Wireless Foundation—a charity created by the wireless industry—said antitrust concerns prevented the carriers from waiving their service fees, if that’s what you were thinking (because so was I).  Although Diggs did say that at least one carrier was contributing its fees for the donations using Text 2Help, while he declined to identify who.

The FTCR, in fact, has sent a letter about the program to former Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton, who raised money for Hurricane Katrina victims, and who were keynote speakers at the trade show, asking them to urge the companies to waive the fees.

In fairness, the letter also questions whether the companies in the program—AT&T, Alltel, Boost Mobile, Sprint-Nextel, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless, and the Dobson Communications Corporation—are taking tax deductions for participating.  But couldn’t consumers also take the deduction for the text messaging fees associated with their donations?  And with the war in Iraq, war on terror, and war on drugs, do we really need to declare a “war on texting?”

Besides, most heavy texters are signed up for plans already, which typically knock the cost down to about a penny-per-text.  And you could even liken the $0.15 fee to using a stamp to donate through the mail.  Which would cost, um, $0.39.

So let’s keep it straight here.  We’re leveraging a popular emerging media technology to facilitate charitable giving.  That’s a good thing.  So if it’s going to run you another 15, 30, heck even 75 cents to “give ‘till it hurts,” that’s barely a pin-prick of pain.

Now if you want to talk about how OPEC is causing us some real pain at the gas pump, on the other hand, I think that’s a cause we’re all keen to take up…