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Using Cell Phones To Transform Philanthropy: How The Mobile Giving Foundation (And A Phi) Was First To Bring Cell Phone Technology To Charitable Giving


Blog_Mark_McDowellBy Mark McDowell, MIT ‘88

About 10 years ago, cell phones reached the mass market. And they weren’t just for making phone calls – cell phones became fashion accessories and people wanted to personalize them in every possible way, from colorful cases to celebrity wallpapers to blaring ringtones. The insatiable appetite for digital personalization – especially among young users – spawned an industry of mobile media companies who sold ringtones and wallpaper images for a couple bucks each to a newly connected generation. A tremendous amount of wealth was created for many companies and investors in only a few years.

The spark of an idea: ringtone technology could be applied to charitable giving.

One of the early entrepreneurs in the field – Jim Manis – saw something that everyone else had overlooked:  the same technology and billing systems that made it possible to sell cheap ringtones could be re-purposed to allow cell phone users to make charitable donations. The idea came to him in January 2005 when the Indonesian tsunami devastated southeast Asia.  Jim reached out to all of the wireless carriers in the U.S. and proposed a text messaging campaign to raise money for hurricane relief.  Users could send a “premium text message” that would result in a donation being made to a charity rather than a ringtone being sent to their phone. The concept worked.  It was reinforced later that year in August when Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, but it was still a one-off experiment. Less than a year later, Jim’s company was sold, leaving him with the time and financial resources to turn “mobile giving” into a full-time job.

Mobile Giving Foundation established in 2007.

The Mobile Giving Foundation was founded by Jim Manis in 2007 and established as a 501c(3) non-profit.  Jim and his early team met tirelessly with the U.S. wireless carriers to ensure that network connectivity, billing and customer care were in place and operational for charitable giving.  From the beginning, the MGF and the wireless carriers were determined to pass through 100% of donations directly to their intended charities, with neither the MGF nor the wireless carriers keeping any portion of the proceeds for administrative purposes. The MGF also had to establish standards to ensure that participating charities were properly vetted to meet both industry and carrier quality standards. And of course, the MGF had to establish its own operations, billing, and auditing functions.

Mobile Giving Foundation, Canada: a Phi provides start-up funding to reach a socially conscious younger audience.

It was during the MGF’s first year of operations that I became involved. Together with my business partner in Montreal (not a Phi Delt, but he would have made a fine one!), I had been running an early stage venture capital fund called Acta Wireless that was focused on the wireless industry. We were seeking – and continue to seek – entrepreneurs who discover ways to use the magic of wireless to disrupt the status quo and change everyday life. When we learned about the MGF, we were immediately struck by its potential to transform philanthropic giving in three key ways: by reaching a younger and socially conscious audience; by reaching them on their cell phones, which are ubiquitous and personal; and by enabling smaller donations – $5 and $10 – with the push of only a few buttons.

All of the ingredients for transformation were in place. We proudly made the first corporate donation to the MGF in 2007 to found the Mobile Giving Foundation of Canada which then drew the full support of all the Canadian wireless carriers.

International giving and mobile apps are the next area of growth.

It’s been five years now since the MGF made its debut. The organization’s ability to transform philanthropic giving has been proven over and over again, perhaps most dramatically during the Haiti earthquake, when the MGF processed more than $40 million in individual $5 and $10 donations in less than 1 month. Today more than 800 charities are registered with the MGF and donations are growing exponentially across the U.S. and Canada.

The MGF continues to grow and extend its reach. In 2012, the MGF formed a joint venture with the Council of Better Business Bureaus and Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance in order to reach more charities and simultaneously ensure the quality and suitability of participating charities. The MGF is exploring opportunities to expand its international footprint and to enable giving through emerging channels such as mobile apps and social media.

How you can get involved.

The MGF depends on corporate sponsorships for funding, since it passes through 100% of all cell phone donations to charities. I would urge all Phis with appropriate corporate ties to consider supporting the MGF financially. I would also urge all Phis with ties to national and international scale non-profits to contact the MGF to explore the suitability of mobile giving. We live in a special time – the mobile and digital revolution – and should seek to put these technologies to work for the greatest good of all.

For more information, please visit: www.mobilegiving.org.

Mark McDowell, Mass Gamma (MIT) 1988. Mark is the co-founder of Acta Wireless, an early stage investment fund focused on the wireless industry.

Here are some tips from Mark on how to be an entrepreneur in the wireless industry.

Q:        How can a person prepare academically for a job in the wireless industry?

A:        The wireless industry at one time was the domain of electrical and radio frequency (RF) engineers. Those skills are still needed and rewarded in the industry, but wireless has expanded to include mobile media and advertising, retail and commerce, gaming and design. One area of growth during the next 5-10 years will undoubtedly be mobile health, or mHealth.

Any number of educational backgrounds can lead to success in mobile, including engineering and computer science, medicine, business, communications and media, and graphic arts.

Q:        What do you see as the Top 5 skills/qualities a person needs to be an entrepreneur?

A:        There are probably 1,000 or more books on this subject. Here are my top five, in reverse order:

5.         INDEPENDENCE. If there’s a common trait to all entrepreneurs, it would have to be a deep vein of independence. Entrepreneurs need to do things their own way – and they are easily frustrated when they encounter inefficiency or mediocrity in the status quo.

4.         SELF-CONFIDENCE. Entrepreneurs will face steep resistance as they try to make prospective customers understand, accept and buy something new. Entrepreneurs will be lonely and discouraged at many points along their journey, and deep internal commitment and passion are required to pull through the low spots.

3.         PRAGMATISM. The flip side of self-confidence … every entrepreneur must be grounded in reality. The strong self-confidence that marks many entrepreneurs can also lead them into wishful thinking and an inability to see facts. Young businesses often need to “pivot” and it’s a wise entrepreneur who recognizes that moment and acts on it.

2.         DECISIVENESS. Entrepreneurs make a hundred decisions before breakfast every day. They don’t torture themselves about whether they’re right or wrong … they make decisions, make them decisively, and move on. The best entrepreneurs make their decisions right, whether they originally were or not.

1.         ABILITY TO SELL. Entrepreneurs must constantly sell.  Of course, they sell their products or services, but they also sell themselves and their ideas … to investors and employees, and to skeptical spouses. The best entrepreneurs are obsessive about staying in close contact with their customers, despite how large their organizations may become.

2 thoughts on “Using Cell Phones To Transform Philanthropy: How The Mobile Giving Foundation (And A Phi) Was First To Bring Cell Phone Technology To Charitable Giving

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