Last night I happened to catch ten minutes of American Idol. It was the special “Idol Gives Back” episode. The episode (or at least that part of the episode) had Ryan Seacrest interviewing Bill and Melinda Gates about their work to eliminate malaria in the developing world. Below the interview was a message asking viewers to donate either by phone or the Internet.
That’s strange, I thought to myself. American Idol is a show that relies on text messaging. If they have a huge fan base that uses text messages every week to vote for their favorite contestant, why not leverage that to have them donate the same way?
The goal of Idol Gives Back is to raise as much money as possible for its partner organizations. The donation website makes that clear: $20 provides a week’s worth of meals for a family of 5 in the U.S., $50 supplies healthy snacks for 15 children in the US for 1 week of after school programs, $100 gives 10 insecticide treated nets to protect 10 African families from the mosquito bites that transmit life threatening malaria, and $250 helps to provide 30 children in the U.S. with essential immunizations. The site goes on to let you donate $500, $1000, or any amount that you choose to help these causes. The phone number presents you with the same information.
So why not promote a text-to-donate program? American Idol clearly knows how to handle text messages that mean different things. They could design a program where viewers could text MEALS to donate $20, SNACKS to donate $50, NETS to donate $100, and SHOTS to donate $250. This kind of program would likely be more successful, since this is how American Idol viewers are used to participating in the show.
The answer is that, while ISPs don’t limit how much money you can donate online, and phone companies don’t limit how much money you can donate over the phone, wireless carriers have strict rules on how much you can donate by way of text message. What is that limit? $10. That’s why all of the text to donate programs to help with Haitian Earthquake relief (well, all of programs that wireless carriers did not shut down) were limited to $10. It is not that groups like the Red Cross didn’t think that people would be interested in giving more than $10 to help Haiti. Rather, wireless carriers stopped them from even asking.
The people behind Idol Gives Back understand that Americans are generous, and want to help those in need. Artificially capping the donation at $10 and preventing people who want to from giving more does not help anyone. It turns out that you can donate to Idol Gives Back via text message (text IDOL to 20222 to make a one time $10 donation), but you have to dig deep into the FAQ to find it.
This is what our text message petition is all about. If people want to donate to help people in need, they should be able to do so however they choose. If they want to donate $10, that’s great. If they want to donate $1,000, that’s great too. However much they want to donate, wireless carriers shouldn’t be placing restrictions that get in the way of helping people.