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Mobile stretches goodwill

Fresh from pulling US$41 million to Haiti relief fund through SMS pledges, Mobile Giving Foundation CEO discusses role of mobile phone as new charity vehicle.
Written by Victoria Ho, Contributor

One of several efforts to aid victims of the recent Haiti earthquake helped pool US$41 million in donations in just two weeks. What made this initiative unique was that the contributions were pledged not through the traditional mode of cash or check but by SMS or text messages.

The effort included charities the American Red Cross and Habitat for Humanity and was coordinated by the Mobile Giving Foundation, said its CEO Jim Manis, whose background in the mobile communications industry is marked by the co-founding of M-Qube as well as a stint as chairman of the Mobile Marketing Association between 2003 and 2006.

After participating in an effort to establish SMS relief donations for the Asian Tsunami in 2004, Manis sold off M-Qube to VeriSign in 2006 and set up the Mobile Giving Foundation in 2007.

In Singapore this week for the Mobile Marketing Forum Asia 2010 conference, the CEO sat down for a chat with ZDNet Asia and explained why the mobile phone is the new charity frontier.

Q: What made you decide to start up a charitable organization?
Manis: I wanted to find some way to give back.

When we were building M-Qube, we had the chance to support the 2004 Tsunami relief effort with a mobile campaign. That was fun, and it certainly underscored the difference between what we do now, and the business of mobile advertising and selling ringtones. That experience triggered setting up the Mobile Giving Foundation for me.

Is it any different reaching out to users as an advertiser and reaching out as a charitable organization?
Fundamentally, there is no difference. From a business perspective, the same principles apply. But we're creating an aggregator for non-profits to remove the cost from launching a mobile campaign.

It's not a revenue-generating opportunity. It's about how to use a powerful medium to take action.

If it's not revenue generating, what's in it on the telco end?
Goodwill. There's truly no revenue generation from the telcos. They provide a way to take SMS pledges and bill them to users later, while waiving the text messages and billing fees. They also pay the charities within the first week of the pledges coming in, before collecting any money from consumers.

But I argue that there is an upside business opportunity anyway because most charities don't have a mobile strategy. So there is an opportunity there to leverage telcos' expertise by developing mobile strategies for the charities to do so.

Of course, this is not a priority for telcos but a lot of brands also see philanthropy and the support of causes as good business.

Is the mobile phone simply another channel of donating? What makes it different from other forms?
During the Haiti relief effort, phonecalls, letters and e-mail messages were pouring into our office from donors, saying: "Thank you, you made me feel good."

These messages were from people who were not good time managers, or who may not have a credit card, or who may have just forgotten to make the donation. But when you have the phone in your hand, you see a way to respond quickly, and there were hundreds and thousands of individuals who responded because they had the capability in front of them.

We tend to ignore the potential impact of the phone on society because the device is ever-present. We all have our phones but the mobile device has the ability and rich functionality to really bring a message across to people.

Do you have plans to move to richer media when you conduct your campaigns?
I want to start with the biggest addressable market and that's through SMS.

There are opportunities in rich platforms but you can drive eyeballs to that though SMS, too. Texting is ubiquitous.

Eventually, you'll also see different charities with apps for smartphones. Those will be used in ways that will create wealth in countries that don't have infrastructure but have phones. These will be used to create jobs, bring awareness and improve the community's health.

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