Why do non-profits run the messaging space?


For over a decade I’ve watched non-profits launch innovative and successful messaging campaigns. This article looks at some of the most talked about and successful SMS initiatives from organizations. The next article will discuss reasons why non-profits, and not necessarily commercial business, excel with messaging channels.

Non-profits are not traditionally thought of to be extremely innovative technically. But non-profits have lead the way in messaging, running more innovative and interesting messaging campaigns than commercial businesses.

Sure commercial business has adopted messaging channels like SMS and Facebook Messenger, but most campaigns have been simple, boring promotions or coupons. Non-profits, political campaigns and governments have pushed the idea of what’s possible and innovated on messaging channels over the last 10-15 years.

There were two notable campaigns that set the tone for non-profits rushing to the messaging space. The first was Obama announcing Joe Biden as his running mate in August 2008. It’s become commonplace to send news announcements via SMS, but the VP announcement was different. The real focus was using SMS calls to action for list building, and finding out about the VP was simply the incentive for supporters to text in. It worked well and the list grew to a million people or more.

The second headline grabbing campaign came just 18 months later as a response to an earthquake in Haiti. The Red Cross had developed partnerships with the cell phone carriers to add customer donations to their phone bill. So if a Verizon customer wanted to donate $10 to the Red Cross, all they had to do is text in.

The Red Cross raised over $36 Million and 100 other non-profits launched text donation campaigns raising millions more.

These campaigns grabbed headlines, but there was a greater, albeit less quantifiable effect in the non-profit space. Messaging had arrived and non-profits flocked to the channel.

From 2010 - 2016 I worked with hundreds of non-profits launching thousands of campaigns. But the numbers aren’t the point of the story. The real story is about creativity and innovation driving adoption of this new channel. I’m sure that Uber, texting reminders about cars arriving drove more volume than the entire NPO sector, but non-profits have many more interesting examples.

  • Reform Immigration for America brought 200,000 people to the Washington Mall using SMS as the primary channel to promote and organize the event.

  • This organization also drove nearly 100,000 calls to Congress everyday for a week, simply by texting out phone numbers that would connect their supporters to their specific legislator. The volume was amazing, but comprehensive immigration reform didn’t pass.

  • A better outcome was realized by technical advocates fighting SOPA and PIPA. Again about half a million advocacy callers were connected to Congress after SMS messages prompted advocates to call in. The SOPA and PIPA bills stalled because of widespread collective action.

  • In 2012 the Obama campaign mobilized their supporters across the country. Supporters could save a credit card online and then make political donations by simply texting in (or responding to a message) with a donation amount. Every opted-in phone number was sent a reminder to vote and could reply with their address to get a message back that specified their specific polling location.

  • In 2016 the Bernie campaign developed Peer-to-Peer text messaging so individual volunteers could manually and rapidly reach out to the voter file without an SMS opt-in. It’s slightly controversial, but still a trend happening in 2019 and expected in 2020.

It wasn’t just politics.

  • National Safe Place is a nationwide network of locations that teens and young adults can turn to for help. They built an SMS database so that anyone could text in to find the Safe Place closest to them.

  • Not to be outdone, both Crisis Text Line and Planned Parenthood launched SMS live chat services where, mostly, young adults could message in and get a very fast response from a counselor or health worker. These are campaigns with TED Talks.

  • The National Cancer Institute and NYC each developed smoking cessation support messaging. It was studied and proven that if a smoker gets support messages via SMS while they’re trying to quit they are twice as likely to remain a non-smoker 6 months after their quit date.

  • SMS campaigns not only advocated for Congress to pass the Affordable Care Act, dozens of states and health focused non-profits used text messaging to drive and confirm Obamacare enrollment once the mandate took effect.

  • Text4Baby provided pre-natal and postpartum health tips for mothers and new borns. The message schedule was a tailored drip campaign, all based around the due date. This idea of marketing automation is de rigueur in 2019, but was new and innovative in 2011.

  • More than any other organization around, DoSomething.org ran dozens of campaigns every year that reached millions of teens and young adults. The organization used SMS as a primary channel and has grown tremendously since 2007.

There is a chance that I’m biased because I worked in the space and saw these campaigns first hand, but I can’t think of a single news-worthy messaging campaign by a commercial enterprise. I’m convinced that non-profits, political organizations and governments just do a better job with messaging campaigns.

In the next article we’re going to look at some of the reasons that non-profits do a better job with messaging.

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