News and analysis
February 21, 2010

For an Increasing Number of Charities, There's an App for That

Monterey Bay Aquarium

The Monterey Bay Aquarium offers this iPhone tool to help diners avoid species of fish that could go extinct.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium had long distributed pocket guides with regional recommendations for what types of seafood people should and shouldn’t eat to further sustainability. A year ago, the California charity released Seafood Watch, an application for Apple’s iPhone device. Developed in response to requests from supporters, Seafood Watch allows people with iPhones to easily carry that information with them and receive regular updates as the recommendations change.

The aquarium’s leaders have been excited to discover that they have a hit on their hands. In the past year, the application has had more than 200,000 downloads, exceeding expectations, says Ken Peterson, a spokesman for the organization.

Mr. Peterson believes the broad reach of the mobile tool has helped not just to build the image of the Monterey Bay Aquarium as a destination to visit but also to raise its profile as a national conservation organization.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium is on the cutting edge of a growing trend. Developing an application for Apple’s iPhone device can be expensive, but some charities are making the investment, believing that mobile technology will play an important role in how they connect with constituents and donors in the near future.

Supporters of charities like his “want this access wherever they go, and the app is a great way to do that,” says Mr. Peterson.

This attitude is backed up by a Pew Research Center report, released just over a year ago, on the future of Internet use. The study predicted that by 2020, mobile devices will be the primary way in which most of the world’s citizens will connect to the Internet.

New Audiences

While many mobile devices are now on the market, iPhone applications are especially appealing to charities because of the ease of development and placement in the Apple iTunes App store.

People who use iPhones also cast a profile that’s attractive to many organizations that seek new supporters. Adults with iPhones have higher education levels and incomes than people who use other mobile devices, according to Forrester Research, in Cambridge, Mass., which conducted a study of 32,228 adults with iPhones in 2008.

Those adults also use their phones and their Internet connections more often than people with other mobile devices.

In hopes of tapping into demographics like these, groups like the nonprofit Paramount Theatre, in Austin, Tex., which released its iPhone application at the end of last year, are making the leap into mobile technology. The application allows the organization to quickly inform supporters about forthcoming performances as well as fund-raising campaigns.

The group has not marketed the mobile tool yet but plans to promote it actively at its summer classic-film series, says Stacey Fellers, a theater spokeswoman, because it attracts a younger audience than the group’s usual supporters. “We are hoping that this will help us reach a new audience and connect with an audience we don’t normally have a full-time relationship with,” she says.

Virtual Candles

With its mobile application, the American Cancer Society is also attempting to strengthen existing connections and expand its reach. The charity released its iPhone application More Birthdays in November. The tool carries the same name as the charity’s campaign to promote itself as the official sponsor of birthdays, since reducing the number of deaths from cancer means more birthdays for survivors.

Miles Orkin, who handles the charity’s efforts to devise new mobile tools, says the application pulls information about friends’ birthdays from a person’s Facebook account so that it is easy to keep track of the special days.

The application also customizes alerts to remind people about a friend’s birthday or send an interactive birthday-cake animation to other people with iPhones.

Because of the iPhone’s breath sensors, the recipient can actually blow out the virtual candles. With little promotion so far, the tool has been downloaded more than 5,000 times.

But the application isn’t all fun and games, Mr. Orkin says.

It also provides links to the organization’s Web content and YouTube videos and includes a fund-raising component that links to the charity’s online donation page. (Nonprofit groups say that Apple lets them use iPhone applications to link to online donation pages but not to raise money directly or to charge users to download them. Apple did not respond to questions about its policies on nonprofit iPhone applications.)

Pro Bono Work

Money may be the biggest hurdle to many groups considering this new technology. The cost of a customized mobile application, according to experts, can start at around $12,000.

“The hardest part of app development is that it is expensive compared to a mobile site or Web-site development,” says Mr. Orkin, “You have to look for creative ways to get the development cheaply.”

Some charities eager to experiment with this new technology, but limited by budget, have been lucky enough to persuade skilled supporters to create applications at no charge. The Children’s Miracle Network, in Salt Lake City, an organization that raises money to support children’s hospitals, developed its Real Miracle application through donated work from Iugo, a Philadelphia Web-development company that works with charities.

People Against a Violent Environment, or PAVE, in Beaver Dam, Wisc., which runs on an annual budget of $350,000, has developed three iPhone applications because the executive director’s husband does the work pro bono. The charity serves 700 victims of domestic violence and sexual assault annually and reaches about 3,000 people through its education programs. Yet PAVE’s applications, which promote awareness of sexual, domestic, and child abuse, have been downloaded by close to 5,000 people.

Jamie Kratz-Gullickson, PAVE’s executive director, says since the applications went public last year, she has seen donations come in from as far away as Chicago and New Jersey. The only way those far-flung donors could have learned about the grass-roots charity, says its leader, is via its iPhone applications.

Containing Costs

Besides persuading computer experts to donate labor, charities can find other ways to keep the cost of developing an application down. Several businesses are now offering services to help charities minimize the expense of developing their own applications.

Miller Creative Media, in Chicago, is designing an application to be sold by subscription. The program, called Campaign Edge, can be customized to reflect a charity’s logo and other brand-identification tools and is geared toward advocacy groups.

The application can let people know about rallies, canvassing opportunities, and new programs, with the information tailored to the phone user’s geographic location. It can create call lists and take quick polls. The cost is $200 to $500 a month for organizations, based on usage.

Other subscription-based applications are also being designed with nonprofit groups in mind.

Charity Dynamics, an Austin, Tex., consulting group specializing in technology for nonprofit organizations, recently donated its time to design a peer-to-peer fund-raising application, which allows participants in an event to solicit sponsorship from friends and families via their phones. The group designed an iPhone application called Ride 4 AIDS, for Hill Country Ride, an annual cycling event that raises money to help central Texans with AIDS.

Charity Dynamics believes it will be able to customize the prototype it created for Hill Country Ride for several other groups that raise money in a similar fashion.

For organizations considering this technology. Donna Wilkins, president of Charity Dynamics has some advice. “The key thing when a nonprofit is investing in an iPhone application,” she says, “is they need to be thinking about the constituency and how they use their mobile phone and not try to just recreate the desktop experience.”