To understand what makes the cell phone such a uniquely powerful tool for community organizing and activism, consider three facts about text messaging: it is almost completely spam-free, it's personal, and nearly every message gets read. Websites, e-mail, paper mail and phone calls don't come anywhere near achieving this trifecta.
"It's as close to reaching everyone as anything--here and everywhere else in the world," says Jed Alpert, co-founder and CEO of Mobile Commons. Alpert, 48, is a leading voice in the growing field of mobile activism: using cell-phone technology--mostly text messaging--to dispense information, raise money and advocate for political and social change. Mobile Commons, based in a former box factory in Brooklyn, works with clients including Habitat for Humanity, Planned Parenthood and President Obama's re-election campaign. (The firm also works for profit organizations.) In exchange for monthly fees ($2,000 to $30,000, depending on usage), clients can use Mobile Commons software to send mass text messages (to those who opt to receive them), collect and mine data and even route phone calls to lobby on behalf of political agendas.
It's particularly effective at engaging young people. DoSomething.org a national nonprofit that encourages teens to participate in community service, saw its text-message list of 500,000 members surpass its e-mail list this month. With Mobile Commons software, DoSomething.org uses geographic data to text teens about nearby volunteer opportunities. It also recently conducted a campaign to send quirky messages to teens from an imaginary cell-phone baby--"I'm up now and need food"--to emphasize the challenges of unintended pregnancy. Half of teens contacted through the campaign said it made them realize that caring for a baby is harder than they thought.
Originally from Fall River, Mass., Alpert attended Connecticut College and Cardozo School of Law, then had an unhappy stint as a corporate lawyer before moving into entertainment law and movie producing. He got into mobile after helping launch a 2001 promotional campaign for Britney Spears that allowed fans to hear recorded horoscopes read by the singer on their cell-phone voice mail. It was fairly crude, but Alpert saw its potential for political and social change. He launched Mobile Commons in 2007 with partner Benjamin Stein, a programmer who helped build the Bloomberg trading platform.
Alpert says raising money via text donation is exciting but unlikely to revolutionize the charitable universe. The Red Cross received $32 million in $10 texts after the 2010 Haiti earthquake--impressive but still less than 10% of the total amount it raised. Says Alpert: "$10 is a trivial amount of money for an organization to raise. What they want is an ongoing conversation with you." What if you sent $10 to a food bank via text and received a return text suggesting a local soup kitchen--chosen on the basis of your area code--where you could volunteer this weekend? How might this stack up against an e-mail routed to your spam folder or a generic U.S.-mail postcard?