The idea of charity may begin at home, but the act of giving this holiday season may start and end with a simple smartphone.
Is This Thing On?, or ITTO, is our Wednesday column showing how everyday people use technology in unexpected ways.
Charities and churches are moving to mobile donations as people increasingly use smartphones for virtually everything but talking, and for-profit companies are stepping in with ways to make donations easier for consumers and more beneficial to non-profits.
The Salvation Army is probably the most visible example this holiday season, with its traditional red-bucket campaign featuring bell ringers positioned in strategic shopping locations.
The venerable institution is testing smartphones that accept a credit card swipe using technology from mobile payment start-up Square. Users in four cities can make contributions using a credit card and smartphone rather than scrambling for spare change and dropping it into the red kettle.
“A lot of people just don’t carry cash anymore,” said Maj. George Hood, the Salvation Army’s spokesman, to the New York Times. “We’re basically trying to make sure we’re keeping up with our donors and embrace the new technologies they’re embracing.”
The pilot program with Square replaces last year’s effort involving traditional credit card terminals near its well-known red kettles, which only generated $60,000 of the $142 million received nationwide from the red kettle program, according to Hood.
The Salvation Army is betting this year’s partnership with Square, which uses a small credit card reader plugged into an Android smartphone, donated by wireless carrier Sprint, will prove more popular and convenient for holiday shoppers. Users who opt-in can swipe their credit card, sign the touchscreen and decide if they want their receipt sent via text or email.
The program, which launched in November, also can collect contact information for future fund-raising campaigns and help the established charity, in operation since 1865, to connect with a younger audience.
Square, which uses credit cards people are already familiar with, is in direct competition with near-field communication, or NFC, technology, which often requires specially-equipped phones and merchant readers.
NFC is behind the Google Wallet application, which is currently available on select smartphones and allows users to touch a payment terminal with an NFC-ready smartphone to transfer funds. NFC is also being tested by a 140-member-strong carrier consortium called Isis, which offers a rival to Google Wallet and is facilitating an industry-wide standard to promote overall adoption.
NFC is also gaining traction with church and charity groups. MobileCause, which has worked with 1,000 charities to set up mobile giving programs, hopes to take advantage of NFC to aid in mobile payments.
“People forget to bring their checkbooks, so using the phone makes sense,” MobileCause CEO Douglas Plank said. “The ministries that have tested it see a 10 to 15 percent bump in giving when they do it.”
Augusta, Ga.-based Stevens Creek Church introduced smartphone giving through the “SecureGive” mobile app, and the contemporary church’s donation app is one of the first to hit the iTunes store.
“In addition to traditional ways of receiving charitable donations, churches are now using mobile apps to make giving to their ministry accessible wherever they have their phone,” said Marty Baker, the church’s founding pastor. “Churches and non-profits have to consider new ways of collecting funds this holiday season. It’s time to embrace a new way to give.”
The SecureGive App provides a quick and easy way for churchgoers to donate using their mobile device, setting up a one-time or recurring donation and designating gifts in up to eight different categories using a bank card or bank routing number. This app is available through the iPhone, iPad, and Android mobile devices and builds on the company’s experience in online and kiosk donations.
Developers of mobile pledge programs are betting the trend will take off as software is perfected and the notion becomes more widely accepted. However, they aren’t so sure high-tech options should replace all traditional means of giving, instead viewing them as an “additive” tool.
The Association of Fundraising Professionals, in partnership with Kaptivate, a technology consultancy for nonprofits, conducted a survey this past June of over 200 organizations. It found organizations use new mobile capabilities to not only seek pledges, but also to connect with supporters.
The success of mobile giving options this holiday season won’t be fully understood until early next year, when the figures roll in. Until then, parishioners who have previously been told to turn off their cellphones in church are increasingly being told to turn them on — to pledge financial assistance and to forge a stronger spiritual connection.
Soon, non-profit donors may no longer ask solicitors to hold their phones while they rummage for cash or a checkbook, but may just cut to the chase and choose mobile giving instead.