One cheer for text message contributions

The Federal Election Commission appears poised to approve a method for donors to make small campaign contributions via text message. But I’m giving the news just one cheer because I’m not convinced text contributions will live up to the buzz.

Why? For one, fundraising via text will be expensive. It also introduces barriers to donor follow-up, and it may benefit only high profile campaigns.

Text collection fees can run 50 percent or higher. While 50 percent may be an acceptable acquisition cost for a new donor, campaigns won’t get the donor’s name, or any contact information other than the mobile phone number. And 50 percent is a very high processing cost for repeat donors when compared to email or web processing for repeat donations.

Not only will campaigns just get mobile phone numbers, but FCC requirements may limit how campaigns can contact those numbers subsequently. The real payoff will not come from a $10 donation, but from the opportunity to re-solicit and otherwise engage the donor. If campaigns can’t successfully contact donors, a $5 net per text won’t go far.

There is one, and only one, big story about text messaging fundraising success – Haiti. But the Haiti earthquake was a disaster of rare proportions with multi-day wall-to-wall news coverage. This is the rare condition that can trigger impulse giving on a mass level. The Obama and Romney campaigns, and perhaps a few other high profile campaigns, are likely to have some success with text fundraising. But for typical campaigns, the text donation payoff is likely to be tiny.

At Aristotle, we’re excited about any new fundraising technology. We’re just not convinced that text message fundraising will be as big a factor as the news coverage to date seems to expect.

David Mason, a former chairman of the Federal Election Commission, is senior vice president for compliance services at Aristotle International.

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