Thursday, January 12, 2012

Shaking up the long tail

Donors who use cell phones to make donations do more than give, they talk about it. They actively encourage others to give. They may not do much due diligence themselves, but they sure do spread the word.

Those insights come from a new report looking at text donations made to Haiti after the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. More than $43 million was raised through mobile giving for that disaster. Given how many of us carry our phones everywhere, it seems likely that we’ll do more of this. 

The research, conducted by the Pew Center for the Internet and American Life, The Berkman Center at Harvard, and mGive (with support from  the John S and James L Knight Foundation) also found that more than half of the mobile donors to Haiti relief went on to make additional disaster related mobile gifts over time. This makes me wonder if the behaviors of these donors in a disaster will become a new norm – call them “roaming reflexive donors.” This kind of giving isn’t committed to a place, a cause or an organization – it’s immediate, “do-something and talk about it.”

While the ability to give small amounts of money quickly might seem like a fragmenting force for donations, the energy with which these donors tell others about their donations might serve as some form of “glue” and “direction” – sending donations to a few organizations with the most vocal early givers, for example. 

I read this research right after reviewing a report from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Cultures of Giving Project. That research notes that Blacks give, on average, 25% more of their income than Whites. Sixty-three percent of Latinos give. These are important insights about the “long tail” of giving, the $211 billion we as individuals give in small bits every year. These data beg to be correlated with data on cell phone use for texting by demographic group (also from Pew).

Every click we make on the web or on our phones leaves a “data shadow.” The collection of these shadows add up into patterns that we are getting much better at “seeing” through data analytics, visualizations, and surveys and research such as that done by Pew and Berkman.

There has been a great deal of speculation in the last decade about how the tech-enabled long tail of giving might change the way all of philanthropy works. One line of questioning asks if the wisdom of the giving crowd, now made visible, will inform nonprofits or big foundations? Online giving platforms have multiplied in recent years, each trying to get the right info to the small donors to motivate them to give.

The question this research raises for me is “what information matters to whom, when?” The best research on this question as it pertains to the "head of the tail" (wealthier donors) is in the form of the Money For Good reports (I and II). There have always been (at least) two sources of information for donors – their peers and the organizations themselves.  The explosion of third party information sources (separate from foundations) that rate, review and opine on different organizations mostly provide information on the front end to inform a gift. But if the Pew/Berkman research is right, and the order of action on mobile giving is “give, tell, move on” where does information fit in? And should the goal be to inform the key people in any given network, as it’s their opinion, recommendations and tweets that will influence others?


Mayur Patel said...

Thanks for covering the report, Lucy! Interestingly, the typical Haiti text donor in the survey was a first-time mobile giver. So we're just at the beginning of a lot of this. Importantly, the majority of these first-time givers then went on to contribute again through their phones, e.g. for the Japanese earthquake and tsunami, the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, and the tornado disasters in the U.S. last spring and summer.

There's something to the term 'reflexive roaming donors' (a potential 2012 buzzword?!).

Lucy Bernholz said...

Absolutely - just the beginining. The fact that donors to Haiti gave to other disasters via text is really interesting.

I think there are 2 elements of the report that bear watching - the point above - "once a mobile giver, always a mobile giver?" and

"How do network dynamics fit into the mobile giving, given the ability to "give and tell" from the same device. The question I asked at the end - are their going to be key "trend setters," network mavens who shape giving behavior. THe cell companies have identified these folks in terms of their own interests - close tracking of key behaviors by certain phone and service users.


Timothy Ogden said...


I'll write more about this over at SSIR, but it's astounding to me that the survey didn't ask the most important question: had these people given to disasters before.

To me, the rest of the questions are the equivalent of asking 10 years ago whether someone gave via cash, credit card or check.

Once you consider that it's likely that these people had given to disasters before given their overall giving profile, the fact that donations were limited to $10 and average credit card donations are higher, you have to wonder whether the big text-to-give movement actually depressed total giving.


Lucy Bernholz said...

The researchers knew the donors had given by phone, that was the data set they had. Knowing why they switched from "cash" to "credit card" to "text" and then "did what" is useful info, precisely b/c of the "give and tell" nature of the mobile phone. Writing checks, swiping credit cards have tended to be solitary acts. Now that we've embedded the financial transaction into the social device - what happens? that's the interesting question to me.


Aaron Smith said...


This is great, thanks so much for the thoughtful post (I especially like your distillation of the “give, tell, move on” concept).

Re: Tim's question about why we didn't ask about prior disaster giving in a general sense, we actually discussed doing this internally but worried that our resondents would struggle to accurately recall their behavior that far in the past. We did feel comfortable asking if they had ever donated by text before since that seemed "unique" enough for people to remember with some clarity, but otherwise we tried to orient them around things that had happened in the preceding year or so. Obviously that decision came with some tradeoffs, but that was our thought process anyway.

With that said, I think we can make some educated assertions on whether or not these folks are "new" givers as well as the extent to which text giving depresses overall donations. Obviously we can't tell with certainty what these individuals would have done in the absence of the text campaign, but when you compare their overall giving habits to data we've collected on charitable giving within the broader population they look totally typical in their behaviors. At the same time, mobile givers in general have a different demographic profile compared with other donors. If you put those two things together, what it says to me is that mobile giving is capturing *both* existing givers who use this new channel to supplement their ongoing contributions, *as well as* new (younger, more diverse) givers who are perhaps not as engaged with more traditional types of philanthropy and for whom this is their first (or only) way of donating. And clearly these donors have a different (less intense, more ephemeral) relationship with the organizations they give to in this way compared with their other groups and causes.

And btw, here's one more data point that we didn't highlight in the report but is fascinating nonetheless--around half the people we reached in the course of conducting this survey screened out because they were under 18. We could only interview adults for this project so we aren't sure if those people actually donated as teenagers or if they had been reassigned their phone number from an adult who did donate, but it's certainly an interesting angle for future inquiry.

--Aaron Smith

Lucy Bernholz said...

Thanks for writing in about the thought process that went into survey design. Interesting truth about age of texters also. I I think there is more discussion of all this over on #SSIR blog


Victoria Vrana said...


I had the same question in mind about potentials of combining data with peer reviews/recommendaitons when I read this (old) article in NPQuarterly this morning:

Lucy Bernholz said...

thanks for the resource, Victoria - it was new to me. So here's the opportunity =

Real time, A/B testing of giving and its motivators - built into resources such as GuideStar, GlobalGiving, text campaigns. These will become critical to improving and understanding donor motivation and behaviors.

And here's the rub - access to those meta data for analysis. Number of giving platforms and competition between them not auto-conducive to making this kind of information available for study.