Interview: James Eberhard
An “American Idol” for School Fundraising?
Mobile text messaging is revolutionizing nonprofit fundraising, and the education sphere is taking notice. The world learned about cell phone text-message donations in the aftermath of the tragic earthquake in Haiti, when hundreds of thousands of individuals texted the word HAITI to the number 90999. Through this simple gesture, $30 million dollars in donations were delivered to the relief effort, $10 at a time.
"Mobile giving," as it's now called, may be the most effective fund-raising tool ever invented. There are an estimated 260 million cell phones in the U.S. Givers like it because it's quick. There's no credit card number to provide or form to fill out.
James Eberhard is CEO of mGive, the five-year-old text-messaging company that launched mobile giving in 2008. The mGive client list includes household names such as Make-A-Wish Foundation, American Heart Association, Public Broadcasting Systems (PBS), Children's Miracle Network, and unicef. And if Eberhard has his way, schools and districts around the country will be next.
Q This isn't the normal way of doing things, is it?
A Traditionally, the way to raise a million dollars has been to get 1,000 people to write a $1,000 check. But we think you can raise more money if you ask 100,000 people to give ten dollars. People may not be able to give $1,000, but they think, "Ten dollars? I can do that."
Q Are there any schools already doing mobile giving?
A There are a number of schools we're working with, most of them colleges—such as Fairfield University, Morehouse College, Northeastern University, and Wellesley College. We're looking at high school and elementary schools now. This is going to get bigger next year-we're less than two years old.
Q How can school districts use mobile fundraising?
A There are lots of different fundraising strategies schools can use. For example, the high school football team can have a donation program where you text in a donation and then are signed up to receive scores sent to you as a text after every game. Or it could be the girls soccer team, or the band.
Q Who sets this up-the school, the district, the individual program?
A The school, usually. What we're looking at is a program that allows individual schools to come online and set up one account for the school. Then individual programs—football, band—can raise money. It's designed to be very viral and extremely easy to use. Most high schools and elementary schools already have the capability to do this.
Q Why go with mobile fund-raising when there are so many other ways-fundraisers, alumni events, Facebook?
A Text messaging is a way to get information out quickly and get a fast response. Half of people don't check their e-mail every day, and only about a third of people have smartphones that can access the Internet. But 80 percent of people read text messages within 15 minutes.
Q Why not e-mail?
A Cell numbers tend to stay the same as students graduate and head out of school, so text-based programs allow you to keep that person engaged through the years. It's becoming a great way to do donor management.
Q Can a mobile donation program work with a school's text message emergency notification program?
A We can shoot out updates from the school like snow days along with news updates and fundraising requests. Those types of activities absolutely can be integrated. [Editor's note: You may already be using them—mGive's parent company, Mobile Accord, provides mobile emergency alerts and other services to schools and government agencies.]
Q What else can you do besides send out news and ask for money?
A You can ask parents to volunteer for an event, tell volunteers where to go-all sorts of volunteer management activities.
Q Have you ever voted on American Idol?
A Actually, no, but I've been to see the show and, of course, texted in a donation or two.