Text-to-donate total exceeds $10m – I think we're onto something

heartChances are you’ve heard of the text-to-donate system set up by the Red Cross to provide relief to quake-devastated Haiti. It seems that the ease of donating and the immediacy of the disaster have prompted a response far beyond what the Red Cross anticipated. I can understand why: I used the system to donate $10 (not to toot my own horn), and found it as easy as dropping a quarter in a slot at the grocery store. So: good work everyone, and if you haven’t donated yet, give it a shot or check out Google’s catchall page for Haiti relief efforts.

The success of this campaign raises some questions about the way this sort of thing should be handled by the telecoms. A $10 charge will appear on my T-Mobile bill, I’m assuming; they volunteered to support this effort, so I think that’ll be the end of it, but now that I’ve gotten a taste of it, I want more. Not necessarily just for donations, but for mobile charging in general. I don’t mean to minimize the importance of the donations and things going on right now, but they bring up a few issues worth discussing.

The ease of payment is made possible by the fact that T-Mo already has my card and address. Making a donation was easy; wouldn’t it be just as easy for an online retailer to say “text 342856 with BILL to buy this item!” This would work better for single-serving sites or those with limited numbers of products, but still, it’d be nice. But that makes T-Mobile into an arbiter of normal transactions. The $10 I’ve donated to the Red Cross has been given to them, but it won’t be paid back to T-Mo until my monthly payment goes through. What if it were a $20 donation? or a $50 shoe purchase?

It would be good to have a system in place for this that is well-understood by consumers. Having an e-wallet of sorts, perhaps managed for an extra $5/month by your service provider or something, would be a great way to avoid having your credit card information spread over 10 or 15 sites. Easy pay systems are here and there, I know, but they’re far from mainstream yet — this donation rush might just be the thing that tips the scales, though. People might find, as I did, that it would be just as easy to buy as it was to donate. It’s something we’ll have to deal with sooner or later.

Of course, there are things like Square out there, but doesn’t Square strike you as a bit of a weird hybrid? It’ll last for a bit, but the marriage of the old card system with a new cardless system seems like a sideways step instead of a forwards one. The challenge will be to make a system that is secure, robust, and easily accessible from any phone.