For an Indispensable Advocacy Tool, Look No Further than Your Cell Phone

by Carol Buckheit on June 22, 2010

As a former grassroots activist, I’ve seen my fair share of rallies, phone banks, canvasses, and e-mail campaigns. It was as exhausting as it was exciting. But in this age of dizzying new technologies, there’s some very good news for the harried community organizer: mobile texting.

I’m convinced that every nonprofit advocacy organization should look at setting up mobile texting as a grassroots advocacy tool. For starters, advocacy orgs can be building their mobile lists by changing their materials–from website sign-ins to donor remittance envelopes–to allow for supporters to opt-in to receive text alerts via their mobile phone.

Here’s an example from NARAL’s website:

Texting, also known as SMS (“Short Message Service”),  allows for the exchange of short text-based messages (up to 160 characters) between mobile devices. Because mobile phones have become ubiquitous–mobile subscribers will surpass 5 billion in 2010 (that’s over 70 percent of the world population)–reaching supporters via cell phone is often easier and faster than e-mail.

Increasingly, advocacy organizations are using mobile texting to engage supporters to take action. Nonprofit Tech 2.0 describes 10 nonprofit organizations currently implementing mobile texting advocacy campaigns.

I was impressed by Rachel LaBruyere and Nicola Wells at the Personal Democracy Forum a few weeks back, who presented their breathtakingly effective mobile tactics for Reform for Immigration in America. They are leading a (bilingual!) texting campaign to mobilize thousands of people across the U.S. to take action for comprehensive immigration reform.

To sign on, supporters are asked to text “Justice” (or “Justicia” for Spanish) to 69866 on their cell phones to receive alerts and calls to action. Reform for Immigration may well have cultivated the largest mobile action list in the country, now numbering over 100,000 subscribers. Their efforts have resulted in massive rallies in major cities across the country, and they are a forceful voice in the debate on fair and just immigration reform.

How are mobile phones useful for advocacy campaigns? Volunteer recruitment, text-to-call (subscribers are asked to call a congressperson/decision maker by dialing a specific number or responding to a text message with the word “Call”),   texting subscribers about an issue, event, or breaking news, and raising money. (Despite the success of mobile fundraising in the wake of the Haiti disaster, text-to-give campaigns are rife with challenges and costs, and are an appropriate strategy for only a small number of nonprofits at this time.)

Building a mobile list of subscribers is not unlike building an e-mail list. Add a text alert “opt-in box” on postcards (face-to-face sign-ups), e-mail messages, web pages, posters, direct mail pieces, and at announcements at rallies, events and fundraisers (announce the short code for sign-ups).

Reform for Immigration in American even produced a 30-second video to encourage  folks to sign up for their mobile campaign:

What about costs and set up? A  specialized vendor is usually required to set up the the system, and set-up and monthly fees apply. Premium vendors such as Mobile Commons start at $500/month, but more basic campaigns can be set up with EZ Texting or Text Marks on a shoestring (less than $20/month, not counting initial set-up costs). Importantly, the  Mobile Marketing Association’s Best Practices must be followed.

For excellent guides to setting up mobile texting campaigns, I’d suggest’s How to Set up an SMS Campaign System or Using Mobile Phones in Advocacy Campaigns by

According to the 2010 Nonprofit Text Messaging Benchmarks report, text messaging still has substantial limitations: “To start, the 160-character limit of a text message leaves little space to make a case for giving or taking action. Furthermore, in most cases, American mobile carriers charge both the sender and recipient for each text message. In terms of fundraising, it wasn’t until late 2007 that organizations could solicit donations from subscribers in the U.S., and even now supporters can only donate in amounts of $5 and $10.”

Mobile texting technology is still evolving, but is well within reach for even small-to-medium nonprofits who have clear objectives and a strategy for building their mobile lists. Early adoption of these technologies may likely yield substantial benefits for savvy advocacy organizations seeking new strategies for engagement.

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Omayra Rodriguez June 22, 2010 at 11:42 am

I’ve sent my “Justicia” text and am excited to feel a part of the movement. Thanks for this great information.


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