On Jan. 12 at 4:30 a.m., James Eberhard was woken by a telephone call from a U.S. State Department representative with the news that a 7.0 magnitude earthquake had struck Haiti. “Can we turn up a text relief effort?” asked the representative.
Eberhard called his colleagues at the Denver-based company Mobile Accord and its nonprofit division mGive. Eberhard is founder and chairman of both organizations, which work together to create cell phone text donation campaigns for charities. Within hours, Mobile Accord, mGive, and the American Red Cross had raised $170,000 for earthquake victims in Haiti. A flurry of text-giving promotions soon followed during the Super Bowl and Grammy Awards and in a public service announcement by first lady Michelle Obama. Appeals also spiraled through social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook.
The results shattered records. Within 72 hours of the earthquake, donations from text messaging exceeded $8 million, according to CNN. By March 4, the Red Cross had raised a total of $50 million for victims of the Haiti earthquake, $32.5 million of which came from text giving.
The Haiti earthquake marked a tipping point in the evolution of text giving. Cell phones are now ubiquitous in the United States, with 276 million users sending billions of texts weekly. But unlike in Europe and Asia, text donation campaigns in the United States were hindered by cell phone service providers that claimed 50 percent of donations to cover billing costs.
That changed in March 2008, when two early players in the text donation space, Jim Manis and Jenifer Snyder, finalized negotiations with the major wireless carriers to pass 100 percent of text donations on to charities. Snyder, founder of the Bellevue, Wash.-based Mobile Giving Foundation, is now mGive’s executive director. Manis is a wireless industry executive and current chairman of the Mobile Giving Foundation.
Both the Mobile Giving Foundation and mGive work with cell phone service providers and charities to set standards, vet nonprofits, and facilitate technology and billing systems. These nonprofits then work directly with businesses called application service providers (ASPs) to orchestrate the technology behind mobile marketing. MGive relies exclusively on and is a division of Mobile Accord, an ASP that Eberhard founded in 2005. The Mobile Giving Foundation, after parting ways with Mobile Accord in fall 2009 after a disagreement over business models, works with a variety of ASPs.
Only time will tell which model is best. But for the moment, Mobile Accord/mGive has emerged as the leader in charitable text donations and marketing because of its highly visible Red Cross Haiti relief campaign. In just a few weeks, Eberhard’s organizations have enabled text giving to do for disaster relief what online donations did for President Barack Obama. They also made text donations the preferred way to give money for millions of people—especially young donors.
A FAMILY AFFAIR
Eberhard was still in his 20s when he launched his fifth company. Among his ventures was 9 Squared, a ringtone business he started in 2001 with less than $50,000. He sold the company in 2004 to the Monstermob Group for $40 million.
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