Shaking Up the Long Tail

Donors who use cell phones to make donations do more than give, they talk about it.

Donors who use cell phones to make donations do more than give, they talk about it. They actively encouraged others to give. They didn’t do much due diligence themselves, but they sure did spread the word.

Those insights come from a new report looking at text donations made to Haiti after the devastating earthquake of January 12, 2010. More than $43 million was raised through mobile giving for that disaster. Given how many of us carry our phones everywhere, it seems likely that we’ll do more of this.

The research, conducted by the Pew Center for the Internet and American Life, The Berkman Center at Harvard, and mGive (with support from the John S and James L Knight Foundation) also found that more than half of the mobile donors to Haiti relief went on to make additional disaster related mobile gifts over time. This makes me wonder if the behaviors of these donors in a disaster will become a new norm – call them “roaming reflexive donors.” This kind of giving isn’t committed to a place, a cause or an organization – it’s immediate, “do-something and talk about it.”

While the ability to give small amounts of money quickly might seem like a fragmenting force for donations, the energy with which these donors tell others about their donations might serve as some form of “glue” and “direction” – sending donations to a few organizations with the most vocal early givers, for example.

I read this research right after reviewing a report from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation’s Cultures of Giving Project. That research notes that Blacks give, on average, 25% more of their income than Whites. Sixty-three percent of Latinos give. These are important insights about the “long tail” of giving, the $211 billion we as individuals give in small bits every year. These data beg to be correlated with data on cell phone use for texting by demographic group (also from Pew).

Every click we make on the web or on our phones leaves a “data shadow.” The collection of these shadows add up into patterns that we are getting much better at “seeing” through data analytics, visualizations, and surveys and research such as that done by Pew and Berkman.

There has been a great deal of speculation in the last decade about how the tech-enabled long tail of giving might change the way all of philanthropy works. One line of questioning asks if the wisdom of the giving crowd, now made visible, will inform nonprofits or big foundations? Online giving platforms have multiplied in recent years, each trying to get the right info to the small donors to motivate them to give.

The question this research raises for me is “what information matters to whom, when?” The best research on this question as it pertains to the "head of the tail" (wealthier donors) is in the form of the Money For Good reports (I and II). There have always been (at least) two sources of information for donors – their peers and the organizations themselves.  The explosion of third party information sources (separate from foundations) that rate, review and opine on different organizations mostly provide information on the front end to inform a gift. But if the Pew/Berkman research is right, and the order of action on mobile giving is “give, tell, move on” where does information fit in? And should the goal be to inform the key people in any given network, as it’s their opinion, recommendations and tweets that will influence others?

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