As methods for online giving grow, stations should prepare for “different fundraising landscape”

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A mobile tipping point came earlier this year. For the first time, mobile devices accounted for 55 percent of Internet usage, according to January data from comScore, while laptops and desktops accounted for 45 percent of usage.

The proportion of Americans who read email on their mobile devices has also crossed the halfway point, with a 2013 Pew Research Center survey finding that 52 percent of cellphone owners used their devices to send or receive email.

For development professionals planning email appeals for year-end fundraising campaigns, these technology shifts will support or undercut the effectiveness of your efforts. Most donors who open your messages will read them on smartphones and tablets. If the emails and the online donation forms haven’t been optimized for mobile users, your campaign will suffer. The universal popularity of smartphones and tablets should make them a natural tool for fundraising. People carry them everywhere and tend to keep them within arm’s reach at all times. Yet as ubiquitous as mobile technology has become in daily life, for fundraising professionals it is a new frontier.

There’s no set of established best practices for fundraising via mobile devices; even the methods for completing credit-card transactions are in play. For public media organizations, I see three challenges standing in the way of effective mobile fundraising:

  1. A basic misunderstanding of the distinctions between mobile communication, which includes text-to-give campaigns in which phone carriers process the donations, and mobile transactions initiated by donors.
  2. The competitive race to develop an app or platform that allows smartphone users to easily — and securely — make donations on their mobile devices has many contenders and, as yet, no clear winner.
  3. The well-intentioned do-it-yourself culture of many nonprofits.

The mobile space is very different from broadcast-centered world of public media fundraising. To adapt to the technology and different audience expectations, public stations need to understand mobile tools — or bring in professionals who do — or put their fundraising programs at risk. Yet few if any have developed in-house expertise in mobile giving.

Paths for mobile gifts

There are basically five ways to move money from a mobile device to your station’s bank account, and they fall into two categories. One is the now old-fashioned text-to-give donations, which are collected by phone carriers and later passed along to charities. Each of the remaining four allows donors to give directly to charities of their choice with their credit cards or bank information: text-to-pledge, giving by apps, point-of-purchase services like Square and Apple Pay, and digital wallets.

Natural disasters such as the 2010 earthquake in Haiti shaped the public’s conception of text-to-give contributions as mobile giving. In circumstances such as the Haiti tragedy, when media coverage and direct appeals by former presidents Clinton and Bush generated millions in a matter of days, it certainly is an effective tactic, although the rules increasingly limit giving, as you’ll see.

Mobile fundraising has evolved beyond this, but executives at companies that specialize in mobile campaigns tell me that misperceptions persist within the nonprofit community. Many development professionals continue to think of mobile fundraising as small-dollar gifts generated by text messages and distributed via phone carriers.

It’s now possible to run a text-to-give campaign that funnels donations directly to your nonprofit, but you’ll need an intermediary to deal with the various phone carriers used by your donors. MobileCause, Mobile Giving and mGive are the dominant services used by U.S.-based charities. They help with the nuts and bolts of a text-based campaign — arranging for delivery of text messages, managing donors’ opt-in and -out requests, and handling transactions. Importantly, they also help to guide strategy and practices in a channel that operates very differently from others.

Moreover, text-to-give rules are changing, illustrated by the fundraising problem created by the growing popularity of shared data plans, which do not permit participants’ contributions to be added to phone bills. Recently, a major pop music artist urged concert audiences to text gifts to a favorite nonprofit, but fully 50 percent of the donations weren’t processed by carriers — and would-be donors were not notified. Neither artist nor fans were aware shared plans block text-to-give transactions.

So do-it-yourself is clearly not an option for text-driven mobile campaigns.

One new approach allows donors to specify their gift amount, often called “text-to-pledge.” After initiating the gift by sending a text message from her mobile phone, the donor receives a link to a mobile-optimized online giving form that allows her to complete the transaction. This approach cuts the phone carriers out as middlemen gift collectors, takes the limits off gift levels and promotes immediate communication between fundraisers and donors. Of course, its effectiveness depends on the accessibility of online donation forms that have been specifically designed for a smartphone or tablet, a topic to which we’ll return in a moment.

For nonprofits employing a mobile fundraising company, the donations generated by text-to-pledge campaigns are promising. Nonprofit clients of MobileCause are reporting text-to-pledge gifts in the $64 to 107 range and pledge fulfillment rates of 60 percent and higher, according to Sean MacNeill, c.e.o. That’s a far cry from $5 or $10 text gifts, delivered months after the contributions were made. Moreover, the process of mobile pledging collects data during the transaction that allows for immediate recognition of a donor.

Mobile Commons executive Michael Sabat describes the original text-to-give process as an understandable starting place for a new communications technology. But nonprofits soon recognized the need to integrate their mobile communications into an overall relationship strategy.

The advent of the “quick donate” function, originally developed by Blue State Digital, helped charities achieve this. It allows donors to designate credit cards they’d used in earlier online transactions for future mobile donations; after completing the subscription process, the donor merely has to text the gift amount. According to Mobile Commons’ data, text subscribers are 250 percent more likely to complete their donations than email subscribers. Each gift transaction occurs online; the phone is merely the trusted messenger. Asking people to enter their credit card information every time they give? “That era,” Sabat believes, “is nearing an end.”

Digital wallets and mobile apps

If your station isn’t ready for a text campaign yet, there are other options. “Digital wallets” and mobile giving apps both require a donor to enter credit card information — but only once. After this setup, he can make mobile donations by merely passing along a gift amount and granting permission.

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Apple Pay will allow users to make credit or debit purchases at stores using a credit card linked to their iTunes Store account.

Financial and tech companies are pumping millions of dollars into creating secure “digital wallets” that hold credit card or bank information for consumers so they can simply make purchases with phones. Apple Pay will be released this month with the iPhone 6 and the new Apple Watch; VISA’s V.me wallet, American Express, MasterCard and PayPal are all working on wallets that are accessible online. Google Wallet, which became a pioneer in the field with its 2011 launch, still battles for universal adoption. Credit card companies and device-makers such as Apple may have advantages that eventually tip the scales.

Specialized apps also could increase mobile giving. Give, a free mobile app recently released by Network for Good and GuideStar, allows a mobile user to search among all 1.9 million U.S.-based nonprofits, make a donation or set up a sustaining gift, and store information for future gifts. It recognizes a single gift as part of a broader relationship and allows donors to set up peer-to-peer fundraisers and promote them via social media.

Public media’s newest app, NPR One, was designed for a different purpose — to make news stories more searchable, accessible and sharable. NPR Digital Services released it in beta this summer and plans to compare the list of registered users with station membership lists. The analysis will help stations identify their digital content users and understand how to talk to them.

NPR’s goal for the app at this stage is “not a mass audience, but a big enough audience to test” consumer behavior, according to Bob Kempf, v.p. of NPR Digital Services. The app directs users to station sites for giving, aiming to “reduce the friction” and the distance between enjoying content and supporting it.

San Francisco’s KQED is among the stations testing ways to use and improve the NPR One app. Tim Olson, v.p. of digital media and education, and chair of the test group, sees NPR One as one element of his station’s broader strategy for mobile technology. For now, KQED’s top priority is converting KQED.org and its email programs to mobile-responsive design. “We need to get the basics right,” Olson says. The process is taking many months, but is central to digital content use and fundraising.

The Give app allows mobile users to donate to favorite charities.

The Give app allows mobile users to donate to favorite charities.

Olson sees great potential for NPR One in cultivating relationships with listeners and donors. Each user can customize the app to his or her preferences, creating “more opportunities for user data so we can do more fundraising tests around listeners’ interests and habits.”

KQED’s mobile strategy is rooted in the belief that “we are moving into a much more Amazon-like world with data-informed opportunities” for connecting with — and gathering financial support from — increasingly mobile audiences, Olson says.

Other stations have opted to develop their own branded apps. At Capital Public Radio in Sacramento, Calif., tablets “are close to topping phones for accessing station audio content,” says Arla Gibson, development director. The popularity of mobile phones and tablets among its digital fans sparked the station to develop its own mobile app, allowing listeners to stream music, donate, read articles and access membership benefits.  “A very small percentage” of giving occurs through the app, Gibson says, but the station isn’t promoting it heavily.

Like KQED, Capital Public Radio is working its way through a mobile-responsive upgrade to its digital platforms. Gibson estimates that her station is “75 percent of the way there” in converting its giving forms to mobile-responsive design; about half the website has been adapted.

Playing catch-up in the mobile game

Even if your station is not using text-to-give, text-to-pledge or mobile apps in fundraising, each of your digital platforms — web pages, email and online forms — are now being accessed via mobile devices.

Yet, in the face of this rapid shift to mobile devices, NPR’s Kempf describes the mobile readiness of public radio stations as “very uneven.” The rates at which mobile users are accessing station content increased from less than 10 percent two years ago to more than 40 percent this year. In response to this stunning growth, NPR Digital Services plans to release mobile-ready forms and web pages for station use very soon. About 100 stations are expected to adopt these mobile tools this fall with many more doing so in 2015.

Most broadcast and fundraising managers recognize the opportunities that mobile devices present for fundraising but can’t decide how to proceed. But as mobile adoption accelerates —and platforms for handling financial transactions evolve — this is no time to sit back.

To become proficient — and to excel — with mobile transactions, nonprofits must put themselves on a learning curve — and a testing phase. Those that start now will have an edge. You didn’t wait until everyone else had websites or email programs before starting your own. Playing catch-up with the world’s most universal technology is not where you want to be. So the smart moves right now are:

  • Fix your email, your most popular web pages and all online giving pages. If you’re already pushing to make your web pages, email and online giving forms responsive to mobile devices, push harder. Both KQED and Capital Public Radio have made mobile readiness a top priority for staff time and spending — neither treats the costs of implementation as a special project or separate budget line. Radio stations strapped for money should take every possible advantage of the NPR Digital Services’ mobile tools this fall. And do the same thing you (hopefully) do with email, pledge pitches and snail mail: Test language and offers.
  • Plan your entry into text campaigning. After you’re satisfied with the mobile readiness of your web pages, forms and email, consider where texting fits into your fundraising program. If you produce public events, sell tickets, seek audience input or offer membership benefits, you’ll need a text plan. Mobile campaign companies generally require a $2,000 to $3,000 monthly fee for managing texts, carriers, transactions, and databases. Note that mobile campaign companies are not generally involved in optimizing your forms and web pages — they assume you are doing this by the time you jump into texting.
  • Be a mobile donor and buyer. Sign up for mobile alerts from a major charity, join a station through NPR One, donate using GuideStar’s Give app, find a new iPhone 6 and try Apple Pay, and text-to-pledge with an organization offering the option. Set up a digital wallet and buy something at the ballgame or coffee shop. Want to know where your mobile fundraising is headed? These exercises will tell you.
  • Learn the facts and trends. Attend two or three webinars on mobile giving from the Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network, Greater Public, NPR Digital Services or one of the mobile campaign companies named here. Sure, they want to pitch their services to you, but their free webinars have the best, most current case studies and are chock-full of information.

The key is to admit what you already know in your heart: When mobile transactions eliminate the need to enter your credit card information repeatedly, everything about the donor experience is going to change. The banks and tech companies mean for consumers to begin adopting that seamless system with the coming holidays. Prepare your station for a very different fundraising landscape by this time next year. As NPR’s Bob Kempf said, “Mobile is no longer a gleam in our eye. It is clearly visible on the horizon.”

Richard McPherson is c.e.o. of New Donor Strategies, Inc., a fundraising consulting agency based in San Francisco, and has advised many public radio and television stations. He works with Mark Fuerst’s Public Media Futures Forums, including on an exploration of “The Future of Membership.” He can be reached at mcphersonadvisor@gmail.com.