Haiti Relief: Donating Via Text And Avoiding Scams

Calls for relief for Haiti have raised more than $300 million dollars — aided by a record-setting donation via text message campaign from the American Red Cross. Douglas Plank, CEO of MobileCause, describes how text donations work. Stacy Palmer, editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, explains how these donations are being used and gives advice on avoiding illegitimate appeals.

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REBECCA ROBERTS, host:

Hundreds of millions of dollars have been donated to charities providing humanitarian aid for the people of Haiti. And for the first time, people are using text messaging to make their gift in large numbers. Yet, whether you're using a cell phone or writing a check, the same question comes up: How do you know the charity you're giving to is legitimate? That you're not getting ripped off?

We'll talk about that with our guests and with you. What questions do you ask before making a donation? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And you can join the conversation at our Web site. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Stacy Palmer is with us here in Studio 3A. She's the editor of The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

Ms. STACY PALMER (Editor, The Chronicle of Philanthropy): Happy to join you.

ROBERTS: First of all, how much money has been raised so far Haiti?

Ms. PALMER: More than $305 million has been donated already. This is a really fast pace for a disaster. And especially since America is suffering through a recession, it's amazing that so much has been donated so quickly.

ROBERTS: So the $305 million is just from America - just the United States?

Ms. PALMER: Just to American charities, yes. So much more money is being donated around the world.

ROBERTS: And do you have a sense of what percentage is from text-messaging?

Ms. PALMER: At least $25 million has been raised by the American Red Cross, alone. So that's a phenomenal amount. And just to place it in context, about $200,000 was raised in the entire year of 2008 by the Red Cross by text messages. So this is just incredible to see 25 million coming in in just a few days.

ROBERTS: If people are still trying to figure out where is the best place to give their own aid, what questions do people need to be asking? Regardless of what method they're sending their money by.

Ms. PALMER: The most important thing is to find out whether the charity has experienced doing disaster work and working in Haiti, and those are both really important questions to understand. This is not a time when groups should just come in and start to learn on the ground. You want people who are experienced and experienced in dealing with these kinds of crises. So ask them what their track record is, what do they what can they prove that they've done in the past. And that's the best way to guarantee that your dollars will go to the right thing.

ROBERTS: And what's the best way to find that out?

Ms. PALMER: You can ask the group. Ask them what experiences they had. There're a lot of Web sites around that have information that you can check. There's a group called guidestar.org that has all of kinds of financial information about the charities. And you want to ask that question to how much are they spending on overhead and expenses? You want somebody that's being efficient. But the reason I said the first question is, what have they accomplished, is that's the most important thing because that means your dollar will be well used.

ROBERTS: And are there anything you should be specifically suspicious of?

Ms. PALMER: One of the things that often happens in disasters like this is that people spontaneously want to do something wonderful. They're very moved by this and they say, I'm going to start a cause all on my own. I'm going to go transport a bunch of goods down to Haiti and I'm going to help all on my own. And they don't realize just how complicated it is. And this disaster is very difficult. Even experienced aid workers say that this is harder than anything they've been through in a long time.

So if the group is too new, if they're pressuring you into giving, that's usually a sign. Legitimate charities don't do that. If they won't answer your questions - those are all warning signs that something might not be right.

ROBERTS: Let's take a call from Eric(ph) in Lansing, Michigan. Eric, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

ERIC (Caller): Hi there. My question regarding texting to charities is it's extremely efficient and an easy way to do that. And there's a disclaimer that says that normal texting rates apply. My question is, do the phone companies receive any of that money or are the, you know, 50, 20, whatever the donations, are going directly a hundred percent to the charity?

Ms. PALMER: A lot of the cell phone companies are waiving some of the fees that they would normally charge and passing it all on directly to the charity. One thing you want to do, though, is check out which charities are getting those fees waived if that's important to you, because they're not doing it for every Haiti donation. So, you know, the Red Cross has a deal with certain other carriers. And just check it out before you give.

ROBERTS: Eric, thanks for your call. Stacy Palmer is with us from The Chronicle of Philanthropy. Stacy, stay with us. We want to bring another voice in to the discussion.

Douglas Plank is CEO of MobileCause. They're a mobile giving Web-based software company. He's with us with the studios of NPR West in Culver City, California. Welcome, Douglas Plank.

Mr. DOUGLAS PLANK (CEO, MobileCause): Thank you. It's nice to be with you.

ROBERTS: Your company is working with several different charitable organizations to raise funds for Haiti through text-messaging. Just give us a little, sort of lesson of how that works. When you text the whatever you're told to text, Haiti, to a number, what happens then?

Mr. PLANK: Great. Well, let me first say that whats so exciting about the ability to make a mobile donation is that were really seeing a democratization of giving. Anybody now can quickly give and be supportive of something that they care about.

And so, in essence, what you do is youll see that theres a key word. So given that most people text nowadays, what you do is you text a particular key word like Haiti, H-A-T-I, to a short...

ROBERTS: H-A-I-T-I, yeah.

Mr. PLANK: Yeah, H-A-I-T-I - excuse me - to 859444, which is a short code for the International Medical Corps, which many of your listeners will have seen on TV. They helped that five-year-old boy yesterday that was recovered after eight days.

And youll get a response back on your phone that asks you to confirm your intent to make this $10 gift to the International Medical Corps. And then you reply yes, and you get one more acknowledgement that says that your gift has been processed.

And then what happens is that when your phone bill is paid and you have that additional $10, typically - and its a little different now because of the carriers. But typically, you pay that bill, and then the carrier processes it through the mobile giving foundation, which is the standard of approving all non-profits and all ASPs, application service providers like MobileCause. And then they forward that money on to the non-profit. Whats happening now is that the carriers are processing that much more quickly, as Stacy just noted, and theyre trying to get the money in quickly. And I spoke with MJF today, and theyve already started to distribute some funds on the ground in Haiti.

ROBERTS: So instead of waiting for you to pay your bill, the wireless company is forwarding the cash to the charity?

Mr. PLANK: Yes. In fact, whats interesting is when you look at the rejection rate of those who make a donation to any non-profit right now through a mobile device, its under one percent. So the carriers can be pretty certain that most people are going to fulfill their obligation to that payment.

ROBERTS: And we also just heard the caller raise the question of how much of your donation actually gets to the charity of your choice. How can you find out if your wireless company or a middleman like your organization, MobileCause, have waived their fees?

Mr. PLANK: What Stacy said was correct. You probably want to check with specific carriers, but my knowledge is that the primary carriers, the top four or five that represent 95 percent of the marketplace, are waiving those fees during this Haitian crisis. And my organization, for our non-profits, is doing the same.

So ultimately, you really are looking at 100 percent pass through onto the ground to help people in Haiti.

ROBERTS: Lets take a call from Brit(ph) in Santo Rosa. Brit, welcome to the TALK OF THE NATION.

BRIT (Caller): Hello, there. Thank you very much for taking my call. I have a special needs daughter with syndrome called Rett syndrome. And Ive been very interested in incremental fundraising, because we do a foundation event every year, and it raises a certain amount of money. But Ive seen the massive amount of money that can be raised by Safeway and Costco in an incremental manner. And I'm wondering if they also do a pass-through of funding, or whether there are organizations that then batch(ph) that funding and distribute it by - and take the percentage off the top. And where I can I find it out - neither Costco or Safeway seemed to give that answer readily.

ROBERTS: This is the added dollar to your bill at check out process?

BRIT: That is correct.

ROBERTS: Stacy Palmer, do you have an answer for him?

Ms. PALMER: Youd want to talk directly to the company. And they cant support all the many different causes, so its really challenging to be able to get support that way. Its a great idea, and it works very well. But they - there are very few charities that really get that chance.

One of the things that a lot of groups are doing is really asking their supporters to help raise small amounts. And youre right, that lots of small amounts are adding up to tons of donations. And so there are ways to - through your Web site, through social networks - to just ask friends and family and spread that message virally. And thats raising lots and lots of money for lots of charities.

Mr. PLANK: You know, Stacy, I would agree. Its extraordinary to see that viral campaign start to take off. When you consider the fact that a $10 gift oftentimes is what you would pay for, you know, a cup of coffee and a snack at a Starbucks, to be able to get that quickly to a cause that you care about and encourage your friends to do the same, thats why I call the mobile device the democratization of giving, because it allows everybody to do this quickly. And also, there are a lot of people in our country who do not have a checking account or a credit card, but they carry that mobile bill - that mobile phone. And they would like to make a donation and participate quickly. So this is really wonderful.

And the other point, too, is that after Haiti is not always in the news, there are still over a million nonprofits in the United States who need help. And there are so many people in the country who would like to be ale able to this through those nonprofits.

So were really seeing a convergence, now, of the mobile device being ubiquitous in a social way that also adds some leverage and weight, because you can use it financially now to support what you care about and easily ask your friends to do the same.

ROBERTS: Plus, Stacy Palmer, also brings up the question if youre - if its this incremental giving, these five and 10 and even $1 amounts, you need a whole lot of them for it to add up to something. Is it taking the place of people who might have given 20 or $50? Does it end up adding up?

Ms. PALMER: Thats one of the concerns and what well be watching over the next few weeks, to see whether this is just beginning of the contribution for a lot of people, because clearly, Haiti is going to require a huge effort and charities are going to come back and make more pleas.

And they might do some of that through text messaging. They might send you a message back on your telephone and say: You know, send us your email address. Well keep you involved in what were doing in Haiti. And they will probably ask you to give again. And they may ask you to give yet more. And thats one of the things people should be thinking about right now, is if they have a limited budget, think about giving some to this immediate relief effort, but then think about the recovery. Thats going to require a lot, too. Save some of your money for a plea that you might want to give in a couple months.

ROBERTS: Douglas Plank, does the charity capture your cell phone information if you text to them so that they can then hit you back for another donation?

Mr. PLANK: Well, theyre able to capture your telephone number, but theyre not getting the name and address, and so forth. And what you do typically is you ask people to opt in to be part of a broadcast list. And then once youve opted in on that list, theres the ability to communicate with them as frequently as you would like, as far as the nonprofit. Of course, you want to continue to earn that right.

But whats nice about texting, unlike email, is that there's such strict rules that you have to adhere to so that there isn't spamming that's going on. So you really need to opt into a particular list. The carriers are looking at, perhaps, beginning to communicate back on - they're giving short code, so that nonprofits can't stay in touch, and then just do, as Stacy said, start to ask you for more information - your name, your email address and so forth - so they can continue to communicate with you through the various normal, development fundraising communication tools.

ROBERTS: You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

Let's hear from Gail(ph) in Newtown, Pennsylvania. Gail, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

GAIL (Caller): Hello?

ROBERTS: Hi, Gail. You're on the air.

GAIL: Hi. Nice to talk to you.

ROBERTS: You, too.

GAIL: I just wanted to point out, my husband told me - I don't know how he found this out, but we have Sprint, and he told me that Sprint is actually fronting the money before people pay their bills to send the texted money. And we - also you mentioned, you know, people might give more. We texted three or four times. So we, you know, we gave more than the $10. And I wanted to point out, also, there was an article in New Times today - I don't know if you mentioned this earlier - about, you know, don't collect stuff They can't get it there, you know. The planes can't land.

And our school is doing this whole thing collecting tents and coats and blankets. And I sent them the article to say, you know, they don't need that. They need money. They can't - you know, Doctors Without Borders can't land with their medical supplies. They're not going to let you bring stuff from a school.

ROBERTS: Gail, thanks for your call. Douglas Plank, do you if that's true, that Sprint is fronting the money?

Mr. PLANK: The word I had to do is that, certainly, Verizon and, I believe, Sprint and the other carriers were stepping up to plan on accelerating the payment of the money and actually fronting that for the reasons that I just described. Because when you reply, yes - a very important message for everyone who wants to text their donation. You have to reply yes to that confirmation. And once you do that, you know, the decline rate of the consumer who wanted to make that donation is under one percent.

So the carriers are pretty certain that youre going to pay your bill. So it's a very generous thing for the carriers to do this right away. And it is also less risky because of the pattern of people fulfilling their obligations for donations that they make through mobile.

ROBERTS: Douglas Plank is CEO of MobileCause. He joined us from our studios at NPR Western Culver City, California. Thanks so much for being here.

Mr. PLANK: Thank you for having me on the show.

ROBERTS: We are stilled joined by Stacy Palmer, editor at the Chronicle of Philanthropy. And Stacy, we have an email for you from Karen in Charlottesville, Virginia, who says: I checked charitynavigator.com to see what percentage of contribution goes to the people in need. I avoid charities that spend too much money on fundraising staff, and especially with very highly paid executives.

What I wanted to donate to charity - I looked for charities that were already in Haiti and compared their data on charity navigator. Having read about Paul Farmer's work in Haiti, I look closely at Partners in Health, the organization he is connected with. And when I saw that it met the above criteria, I sent in my donation. One thing I appreciate is that they email with updates about what they're doing in Haiti every day.

Ms. PALMER: And those are exactly the kinds of things a good donor does and what a smart charity does, is to let you know what's going on. And you can follow - a lot of charities aren't just emailing updates. Their aide workers are writing on blogs, a lot of them are tweeting. You can really have this feeling of what's actually going on in Haiti in lots of ways. And we've never had that in a disaster before, where you can really understand exactly what kind of work has being done. And when a group builds that connection, you as a donor have a much greater trust. So absolutely look for that.

ROBERTS: We're seeing now that a week and a half has passed since the earthquake, that some celebrity events are being organized. MTV is hosting a two-hour "Hope for Haiti Now" telethon tomorrow that's going to feature Bono, and Jay-Z and George Clooney and Justin Timberlake. Quincy Jones has announced plans to remake "We are the World." They are such big productions. They seem very expensive. Do they raise money?

Ms. PALMER: It depends on whether everybody is donating. It's a little bit like what we were talking to about the cell phone companies. It's the same thing. If everybody's donating their services - which in a cause like Haiti, they probably are - then it's not as expensive to pull off such a production like that, and a lot of the money will probably will end up going to the cause.

But its important to ask that question, you know, if you're asked to give to a telethon that a star is running, you know, just to ask what percentage is going to go on. If they won't answer the question, then go to a charity that will answer your question. Even if you love the celebrity, you know, still ask those tough questions.

ROBERTS: Haitian-musician Wyclef Jean had a text messaging charity, Yele Haiti, and it came under some scrutiny. Do you have any answers of whether or not that it seems like a legitimate place to send money?

Ms. PALMER: People have been raising a lot of questions, and we did some coverage of the charity a couple of years ago when it was getting started. And a lot of international aid experts are always suspicious when celebrities come in and say that they want to do something. And one of the things that he certainly did was win them over and say he had really great connections in Haiti. And they realized that his celebrity was actually helping them accomplish their job. So they were very impressed. Some pretty hard-boiled people said, you know, we think that they're going some good work.

There have been some questions raised about their finances and what's going on, and different tax experts all have different views of what's going on and what's happening. You should look for yourself and see whether you think it's legitimate, but people do think that the group has done some good work. It doesn't have a lot of experience doing disaster work. And you might want to ask questions about whether right now they're the ones to give to, or maybe later in the recovery process, they might be the ones who can do better on that score.

ROBERTS: Stacy Palmer is editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. She was with us here in Studio 3A. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. PALMER: Thank you.

ROBERTS: Tomorrow, it's TALK OF THE NATION: SCIENCE FRIDAY: looking at state-of-the-art in facial recognition. And Neal Conan is back on Monday.

Have a good weekend. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Rebecca Roberts, in Washington.

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