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Text Messaging: A Tool for Immediate Engagement

Excerpts from 2010 Nonprofit Text Messaging Benchmarks


After a devastating 7.0-magnitude earthquake struck Haiti on January 12, 2010, media, government officials, and users of social networking sites urged others to make charitable gifts to relief organizations. But there was something new about these pleas to give. For the first time in the United States, text messaging ranked alongside Web sites and telephone numbers as a primary giving medium. After the disaster struck, the American Red Cross worked with mGive to set up a text donation program that resulted in more than one million Americans donating over $26 million within nine days of the disaster through $10 text donations. In fact, the Red Cross's mobile fundraising campaign for Haiti emergency response efforts is the largest grossing to date.

The Haiti earthquake marked a turning point in mobile giving. It showed that text messaging can be a far-reaching tool for immediate engagement. Nearly 90 percent of Americans own mobile phones, and text messaging has become an all but ubiquitous part of American life. Because mobile phones are the one device that most people keep handy at all times, text messaging offers nonprofit organizations a powerful technology for fundraising, recruitment, and engagement.

American nonprofits are beginning to utilize text messaging (also known as SMS, which stands for "short messaging service") more than any other mobile phone technology because of its versatility and market penetration. In addition to its fundraising potential, text messaging can be used to communicate breaking news and information, prompt supporters to call lawmakers, or deliver information about the positions of a candidate or corporation. ...

Text messaging is especially well-suited for certain types of advocacy engagement, such as call-in alerts. At the same time, text messaging has substantial limitations. To start, the 160-character limit of a text message leaves little space to make a case for giving or taking action. Furthermore, in most cases, American mobile carriers charge both the sender and recipient for each text message. In terms of fundraising, it wasn't until late 2007 that organizations could solicit donations from subscribers in the U.S., and even now supporters can only donate in amounts of $5 and $10.

In its current form, text messaging is most effective as part of a multi-channel communications strategy. For the foreseeable future, e-mail, Web, and direct mail are likely to continue to be the primary means by which organizations communicate with supporters, raise money, and generate action. However, text messaging can reinforce messages from other channels, provide an immediate engagement opportunity in urgent situations, and serve as a key part of a broader communications strategy.

The 2010 Nonprofit Text Messaging Benchmarks report is the first of its kind. ... The aim of this study is two-fold: 1) To provide benchmarks and metrics by which nonprofit organizations can measure their success with text messaging; and 2) to illustrate the various ways in which organizations are using text messaging. ...

Key Findings

  • Among the organizations that participated in this study, over 80 percent of text subscribers were recruited via an online program. However, some organizations—especially those with a strong presence at events (notably concerts) or with a television advertising budget—can generate a sizeable number of recruits through these "offline" channels.
  • Text messaging lists grew at an annual rate of 49.5 percent. This rate is quite high, in large part because many partner organizations are building their text lists by drawing from existing supporters.
  • The annual churn rate for text lists was 30.7 percent. The benchmark text message unsubscribe rate was 0.69 percent. Unsubscribe rates varied somewhat by messaging type, with fundraising solicitations seeing the highest unsubscribe rate of 0.92 percent.
  • The response rate for call-in advocacy text messages (text messages urging a supporter to make a call to a decision maker on behalf of the organization) was 4.7 percent—nearly six times the 2009 benchmark response rate of 0.82 for call-in advocacy e-mails. This rate is impressive, and indicative of the power of text messaging to generate an immediate response.

Read the complete report

Michael Amoruso and Jessica Bosanko, M+R Strategic Services, with Katrin Verclas,
© 2010, M+R Strategic Services and Excerpted from 2010 Nonprofit Text Messaging Benchmarks; excerpted with permission.

M+R Strategic Services provides highly tailored campaign strategy and services to leading nonprofits working on behalf of the public interest. connects people, organizations, and resources using mobile technology for social change.

Topics: Communications