Wireless carriers delay paying Japan's text-to-give donations

58,000 sign petition to speed payments; Senator Boxer urges carriers to use the same payment policy as Haiti disaster.

As the fallout from the Japanese earthquake/tsunami/nuclear meltdown tragedy continues to unfold, Americans want to help. We learned from the Haiti disaster that the easiest thing to do is to text a donation to our favorite relief organization. But, unlike Haiti, did you know that a text donation will take as long as three months to get to the relief agency?

Japanese earthquake
Updated 03/24: Change.org wants you to help put pressure on MGive.com and wireless carriers such as AT&T, Sprint and Verizon to speed things up. A petition asks these organizations to follow the precedent they set for Haiti and send the text donations to Japan immediately.

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The petition was launched by Masaya Uchino, a third-year law student at University of California Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco who discovered that when people text-to-give to Japan, they couldn't know that their donations were being treated like non-emergency donations, a different policy than that used with Haiti. This means carriers charge the donation to the bill, wait for the customer to pay up and only then do they send the payment onto the charitable organization.

Uchino writes on Change.org:

"During the response to Haiti, cellphone companies processed mobile donations to relief organizations right away. But for Japan, they aren't making this same exception and it could take as much as 90 days for donations to reach people in need. Please help convince them to immediately processes donations so donations reach where they are needed now. "

Uchino's online petition at Change.org has so far collected over 53,000 signatures and the attention of California Senator Barbara Boxer. On Friday, Senator Boxer sent a letter to the leaders of the nation's wireless companies and asked them to stop delaying these donations.

Boxer wrote:

"Advances in mobile technology have made it possible for Americans to contribute to relief efforts using their cell phones. Unfortunately, while those who have donated are likely under the impression that making a mobile donation means funds are being rushed to the affected area, the reality is it takes quite a bit longer. ...

"In past global humanitarian crises, American mobile phone companies have remitted donations immediately to nonprofit organizations. In light of the scale of destruction in Japan, American wireless carriers should again immediately remit mobile donations to organizations conducting relief efforts on the ground."

Currently, the non-profit mGive Foundation has certified the following relief organizations working on the Japan crises:

  • The American Red Cross – Text REDCROSS to 90999 to donate $10
  • Convoy for Hope – Text TSUNAMI to 50555 to donate $10
  • GlobalGiving – Text JAPAN to 50555 to donate $10
  • World ReliefCorp of National Association of Evangelicals – Text WAVE to 50555 to donate $10

Some carriers actually support a broader list of text-to-give recipients for Japan than those using mGive.com's systems. In addition to the list above, Verizon lets you donate to the following organizations:

  • ADRA Relief: text SUPPORT to 85944
  • International Medical Corps: text MED to 80888
  • Mercy Corps: text MERCY to 25383
  • Salvation Army: text JAPAN to 80888
  • Save the Children Federation, Inc.: text JAPAN or TSUNAMI to 20222
  • World Vision, Inc.: text 4JAPAN or 4TSUNAMI to 20222

Note, too, that when you typically text a donation, the organization receiving it has to pay a transaction fee which may or may not be passed along to you on your bill. The mGive Foundation is a non-profit, that charges nothing to certify a charity to the carriers. The carriers forward 100% of the donation amount to the charitable organization. But both the carrier and the similarly named "mGive.com" may still charge a transaction fee. mGive.com is a for-profit arm of the company Mobile Accord. It runs the technology involved in taking text donations (and performing other mobile fundraising campaigns for non-profits). In addition to setup fees and monthly fees it charges a per transaction fee of $0.35 + 3.5 %.

UPDATED 03/24: Verizon Wireless, AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile other service providers have waived SMS fees when donating to Japan via text messages. mGive waived them for Haiti. I asked mGive.com if it has waived them for Japan as well and this is the reply, from Brian Leamy, Executive Vice President:

"All donations are passed 100% to the recipient charity for all campaigns (disaster or otherwise). We perform an invoicing function based on a monthly lookback at volume. All fees for our services are paid for by the charity (they subscribe to our technology services).  There has not yet been talk about waiving fees for the current campaigns."

In other words, no.

Text-to-give reportedly raised more than $25 million for Haiti the first week after the disaster. Reports totaling how much has been raised through this method for Japan are harder to come by so far, but exposure has been great. Last week, text-to-vote icon American Idol promoted the Red Cross donation codes on its broadcast. Donations to Japan have reached about $136 million overall as of March 21, with text messaging accounting for a small, but significant percentage, reports The Chronicle of Philanthropy. For instance, of the $89-million raised by the Red Cross for Japan as of March 21, text-message accounted for more than $3.7-million.

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