Donate Minutes Via Your Mobile

Directly inspired by Scott Smith's excellent brainstorming game at #M4ChangeUK.

A team consisting of myself, Luke Razzell, Improbulus, Karina Brisby, Priya Prakash, and a few other lovely people whose names have slipped my mind were tasked with finding a way to raise money for clean water.  Specifically targeting families and using mobile payments.

Me describing our team's idea

Me describing our team's idea

The Proposition

  1. The ability to donate your unused minutes to charity.  Text "10" to NNNNN to donate 10 minutes to help dig a well.
  2. Feedback from the project.  "Since digging the well, 500 people have got access to clean water".
  3. Rewards for donating.  Free ringtone, a wallpaper of your project, mobile videos.  Possibly even extending to tax benefits.
  4. Social Network. "@edent just donated 15 minutes to build a water sanitation plant. Donate by texting ....."
  5. Ensuring local people are employed to staff the project - giving training in building, maintaining and IT skills

Here's how it looked when we were done with it.

The finished article

The finished article

There are two end goals

  1. You see a poster which says "It takes 6 hours to drill a well. Donate 10 minutes - text 10 to [SHORTCODE]".
  2. You text "Unused" to [SHORTCODE], any unused minutes at the end of the month get donated to charity.

I was really excited with what we'd come up with in just 30 minutes.  However, it's not all plain sailing.

The Problem

What constitutes "unused" minutes, what are they worth, how are they donated?

Pre-Pay Customers (where you load your account with credit):

With pre-pay, you may only have a set time period in which you can use your credit. If your credit expires after, say, 30 days, that amount is donated to the charity.

The "donation" question is quite easy.  If you have £9.37 on your account and you donate £1.00, you're left with £8.37 to spend.

The "minutes" question is quite tricky. On some plans, the first few minutes are charged at a high rate, subsequent minutes at a lower one.  Minutes to mobile phones are often cost more than to landlines.  How do we get a standard definition of what a minute is in order that donors understand how much they're spending?

Contract Customers (where you pay at the end of the month):

The "minutes" question is easy.  You have a plan which gives you 600 minutes, you donate 10 minutes, you're left with 590 minutes until the end of the month.  If you go over 590 minutes you're charged your out of bundle rate (making a nice little earner for the operator).

The "worth" question is trickier. If you have a £35 plan which gives you 500 minutes domestic calls, 100 minutes international calls,  700 text, 500MB data, and insurance - how much is one minute worth?  To you it's simple - fewer minutes on your plan.  But how much is given to the charity?

The "donation" question is also tricky. If your plan includes different types of minutes - domestic, mobile, international, video calling - from which class is the donation taken?


[Disclaimer: I work for Vodafone Group - this is my personal blog. All opinions are my own and represent no one other than myself. I really have very little idea how operators plan their airtime budgets]

MNOs (Mobile Network Operator) get some great benefits from a scheme like this.  The good PR that comes with highly visible CSR is one - the fact that charitable donations can be tax deductible is another.

Again, there are some downsides.

The main problem comes with unused credit. I am sure (but I don't categorically know) that MNOs budget for the average user only utilising 80% of their inclusive minutes.  Most people err on the side of caution and will take more minutes than they'll actually use to ensure they don't get bill-shock.

(No doubt there are some customers who regularly exceed their inclusive allowance - but they can't donate what they've already used!)

So the customer thinks they're paying £30 for 600 minutes (5p per minute) whereas the operator knows that they'll probable only use 480 minutes (so they're being charged 6.25ppm).  Is an operator really going to be happy donating £6 (5p * 120 unused minutes)  from their profit margin every month? Probably not.  Even the tax breaks won't help there.

For that reason, I think donating "unused" minutes as cash idea is probably a non-starter. It's the most attractive - you literally do nothing and you get to make a donation - but it directly attacks the MNOs business model.

A Solution?

We've already discussed how much a minute is worth.  Perhaps the easiest thing to do would be to charge customers - pre-pay and contract for the donation.  If a contract customer donated 10 minutes, she find an extra £1.50 charge on her phone bill that month?

Perhaps the "unused" minutes could be donated to the charity in the form of minutes. Literally.  You donate 10 minutes, the charity has 10 minutes worth of calls wiped from its monthly phone bill.  The MNO gets to write off the bill to charity, the charity has money freed up for good causes.

Next Steps

I'm going to be thinking more about this issue throughout the week - I really want to take this idea further. I'd welcome any thoughts, feedback or criticism.

7 thoughts on “Donate Minutes Via Your Mobile

  1. Bex says:

    Nice blogging!
    From someone who always has minutes left on her mobile I think the *water/minutes project is a brilliant idea! Good luck with it.

    * Just an idea, but could you call it 'time-tapp' as in 'tapping into' minutes and application

  2. Hi @edent

    I think its a great idea and I have been in discussions about similar schemes for unused loyalty points from supermarkets (e.g. nectar) and also unused interest in accounts in the financial sector.

    The barriers are many as you say.

    But before they get distracted with your idea I think the uk mobile operators (vodafone being the most progressive in this space IMHO) should be spending any time around mobile and charity sorting out the following:

    1. MNO's are charging VAT on 100% of SMS based charity donations today. This is illegal, full stop. They should be only charging VAT on the amount that the MNO keeps for processing the SMS and the billing.
    2. In order to do 1 above they need to allocate some of the short-codes to charitable purposes and encourage uk aggregators and agencies to offer the charities SMS donation services. I understand we are close to agreement to use the 70xxx range of short-codes for this purpose, but I am not holding my breath.

    3. MNO's should honestly consider what is a fair charge ( as a percentage or as a fixed fee per transaction ) to take from the donation submitted by the MNO's customer. Ideally Charities would like 100% like in the case of Comic Relief 2009 and the 2004 Tsunami but the businesses between them and the donor ( Charity Agency (poss.) Aggregator MNO Donor ) all need to be sustainable and at least cover their costs.

    If there is light monitoring / regulation around the proposed 70xxx series of short codes to ensure that only agencies on behalf of register uk charities use the improved pay out rates then text message donations could have as positive affect on charities as the amazingly successful Just Giving.

    Places to find our more if you are interested:

    3 people from mobile industry that has been helping the Institute of Fundraising to change 1,2 and 3 above....

    my website
    other agency in uk headed by campaigner Roger Craven
    big mobile agency great charity campaigns

    mobile aggregator i am involved with

    recent press release:

    IoF website:

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  4. Sean says:

    Hi Terence,
    Great blog....this idea is something that my partner and myself came up with over a year ago whilst charity fuindraising and today is the day that I have started to see if anyone else is doing it and came to your blog! We drew the same conclusions as yourself. We watch with interest how you guys get on....good luck!

  5. says:

    We are VERY interested in this discussion -- it's been four years -- any headway? We make telecommunications equipment and thus we can 'print' minutes.

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