Text Message Donations: Aiding or Stifling Relief Efforts in Japan?

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In an age when you can balance your bank account or make dinner reservations from your cell phone, it’s no surprise that disaster relief efforts have gone mobile. But are text message donation campaigns really helping the situation in Japan, following the 9.0-magnitude earthquake that struck last Friday? Not as much as one would hope.

(More on TIME.com: See how you can help the victims of the earthquake in Japan)

After the Haiti earthquake in January 2010, more than 3 million people donated $10 to the American Red Cross by texting HAITI to 90999. The record-breaking campaign brought in $32 million of the $479 million the organization raised in the year following the Haiti quake. At some points, text donations came in at a rate of $200,000 an hour.

“People like the sense of immediacy,” says Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Philanthropy Institute. “What’s good about that is it gets young people interested in giving. They’re used to manipulating their phone. It’s not esoteric or exotic.”

Josh Kittner, senior marketing consultant for the American Red Cross, said the text giving campaign for the Japan earthquake and Pacific tsunami will be the organization’s second largest after Haiti. Since last Friday, the Red Cross has raised $1.6 million for Japan from REDCROSS texts sent to 90999. That number pales in comparison to the $5 million raised by mobile givers within two days of the Haiti quake.

Unlike the Red Cross, the Salvation Army’s initiative for Japan is its first major disaster relief text campaign. As of Tuesday, text donations accounted for almost $93,000 of the $1.7 million the organization had raised. “We’re much further ahead of the game then we were with Haiti,” says Major George Hood, a Salvation Army spokesperson. “When there’s a disaster like this, people prefer to use their phone. In the early days that was a 1-800 number. As texting has come into play, people prefer texting.”

However, Hood acknowledges that there’s a downside to texting. In both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army’s text giving programs there’s no choice of how much to donate. The simplicity of the text message is a double-edged sword: while more individuals are donating, they’re all giving a flat $10 amount. The average online donor to the Salvation Army gives between $150 and $170.

(More on TIME.com: See exclusive pictures on the ground in Japan)

The Wealth Factor

Currently, donations for Japan are on par with last summer’s giving to Pakistan, amounting to around $25 or $30 million, Borochoff noted. Despite the increased proliferation of text giving, there’s a larger reason donations to Japan are lagging behind last year’s numbers for Haiti.

While Pakistan’s death toll remained low last summer with around 1,500 casualties, 20 million people were affected by the flooding, 500,000 of whom were displaced. That number is nearly ten times the 2 to 3 million people affected by the quake in Haiti. Hood said the Salvation Army saw very little donor response for a simple reason: politics. Borochoff agreed, noting that people really had no idea where their money would be sent in Pakistan, due to the country’s ambiguous relationship with the United States.

Unlike impoverished Pakistan, donations are lagging to Japan because the country is financially well off.  International aid organization Doctors Without Borders decided not to allocate any of their funds towards Japanese relief. “Japan is a wealthy country, they’re less attractive as a target because they are prepared for this and are able to do a lot for themselves,” said Borochoff.

See below for different organizations offering text donations.

• American Red Cross Relief: text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10
• Salvation Army: text JAPAN to 80888
• Convoy of Hope: text TSUNAMI or SUNAMI to 50555
• World Relief Corp. of National Association of Evangelicals: text WAVE to 50555
• GlobalGiving: text JAPAN to 50555 to donate $10
• ADRA Relief: text SUPPORT to 85944
• GlobalGiving: text JAPAN to 50555
• International Medical Corps: text MED to 80888
• Mercy Corps: text MERCY to 25383
• Save the Children Federation: text JAPAN or TSUNAMI to 20222
• World Vision: text 4JAPAN or 4TSUNAMI to 2022

(More on TIME.com: See our full coverage of the Japan quake)