How ‘This American Life’ Attracted Donors with Mobile Giving

    by Anne-Ryan Heatwole
    April 29, 2010

    Those of us at MobileActive have written before about mobile giving during disasters, and the dramatic results these campaigns can have. But mobile giving can also be used for non disaster-related fundraising drives, and the popular public radio show “This American Life” is one of the latest organizations to embrace this trend.

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    The weekly radio show tells stories about the experiences of everyday people. It’s distributed by Public Radio International and attracts 1.7 million listeners each week. Its free podcast generates 600,000 weekly downloads, creating significant bandwidth charges. As a result, “This American Life” holds twice-yearly pledge drives in order to defray the costs of the podcast and online streaming, and to cover some of the cost of producing the show. During the fundraising drive last December, the show for the first time incorporated a mobile giving component.


    When contacted, Seth Lind, production manager for “This American Life,” said the show took an experimental approach to their first foray into mobile giving:

    We were mostly just curious to see what would happen. Our theory was that the ease of giving that way would be really attractive to people, coupled with the fact that a lot of people are listening to the show, or the podcast, on a device they can text with. Our traditional way of asking for donations on a podcast was sending people to a website — if you’re out jogging, you’re not really going to do that. But if you’re out jogging listening to the show on your iPhone or another smartphone that plays media, maybe you would stop and take the 30 seconds or less to send a text. We thought that it could lower the bar for people and make it a lot easier to donate.

    An Obvious Match

    The campaign, which is still live although not being actively promoted, has so far raised $142,225 from 28,445 individual donations. To contribute, users text the word “LIFE” to the short code 25383, and a $5 charge is added on to their mobile phone bill. Set up by Mobile Commons, a company that offers a mobile marketing platform and works with many non-profit organizations in the U.S., the system is designed to take advantage of the mobile and media aspect of “This American Life.”

    Lind pointed out that “This American Life” and mobile giving are an obvious match.


    “I think that a media product like ours, it’s ideally situated for something like this,” he said. “What we make is communications, so it’s normal for us to communicate with people.”

    The campaign was promoted primarily through appeals from host Ira Glass at the beginning of the podcast, with banners on the website, and via a Facebook widget.

    Lind added that he thought the campaign was successful because it doubled the number of individual people donating. (While 20,000 people donated in June 2009, in the December 2009 campaign, more than 40,000 people donated either online or via their mobile device.) However, because the donations via mobile were a flat $5, the total raised in the December campaign was roughly equal to the total raised in the previous campaign, even with more people donating. Lind noted that listeners giving online could donate any amount they wanted, and thus tended to give much higher amounts than the flat $5 the mobile donations brought in.

    To increase the total, mobile donations will be set at $10 when the next fund drive begins in June 2010. Lind said he hopes the mobile donations system will continue to bring in large numbers of givers, and that those higher numbers will allow “This American Life” to make up the difference between online and mobile giving.

    “With the text giving, you [could] only give $5,” he said. “So we actually raised about the same amount of money total, but we got it from a lot more people — which I consider a good thing. We would rather have a whole bunch of people give a small amount of money compared to fewer people having to give more money. But in order to have this be really successful, we’re going to try to have this at the $10 level.”

    Delayed Donations

    Another challenge faced by This American Life, other than the lower money amounts brought in by mobile donations, is that the funds are not available instantly to the program the way online donations are. Online donations come directly from credit cards, so they can be used right away; mobile donations take longer because they are processed by the carriers and intermediaries before reaching the organization.

    Lind mentioned that users remarked about how easy it was to use the mobile giving system, and that the program brought in an entirely new group of donors who may not otherwise have contributed. He added that although there wasn’t a target audience in mind when “This American Life” started its mobile giving campaign, the gains in the number of people donating is a positive sign for the future of mobile giving. He said:

    We had a sense that there are a bunch of people out there who want to give who don’t use our website, who just download the podcasts…This is just a way for people who don’t use our website to give. And while there was some poaching of people who would have otherwise given on the website, it is largely a new group of people — like I said, it doubled the number of people giving.

    According to Lind, this mobile campaign is just the start of the show’s use of mobile technology. The show also plans to launch an interactive text-based campaign for sponsors and develop smartphone applications.

    “We are going to keep doing this,” he said. “I think it’s really smart to be thinking about mobile technology in general. We just released an iPhone app to have mobile access to our entire archive. And people thanked us for making it easier for them to donate, which was really cool.”

    This was cross-posted on MobileActive.org.

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    Tagged: Donation fundraising mobile giving mobile phone podcasts this american life

    4 responses to “How ‘This American Life’ Attracted Donors with Mobile Giving”

    1. David Cohn says:

      I think this is awesome.

      I have said MANY MANY times that NPR could blow Spot.Us out of the water if they started letting people have control over where their money goes. I think this is a move in that direction. People weren’t donating to NPR – but to Ira Glass and This American Life.

      I wonder, however, if the actual funneling of money mirrors people’s donations or if it’s a gimmick and the money does indeed go to NPR the larger organization.

      If it does go directly to This American Life then… kudos to NPR. I don’t know if they would – but I’d call that a moral win for what I’m pushing for with Spot.Us

    2. Actually it is pretty cool! But it’s not from NPR, it’s from PRI, Dave. Not sure how exact funneling occurs, but usually local outlets in public media do their own fundraising. Haven’t heard of particular shows fundraising before, though. Could be slightly on the road to crowdfunding, but not down to the level of specific shows/reports getting funding… at least not yet!

    3. Teresa Davis says:

      I think an important missing piece of information in this article is the percentage of the $5 that goes to This American Live and the percentage that goes to Mobile Commons. I would like to know.

    4. Anne-Ryan Heatwole says:

      Hi Teresa,
      Thanks for your question! I asked my contact at This American Life, and he said that Mobile Commons does not take a percentage of the $5. Rather, organizations pay a monthly fee which is set on a case-by-case basis.

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