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Providing Services with Mobile Devices

Nonprofits and charities find creative ways to tap into cell phones' popularity and engage constituents

Providing Services with Mobile Devices
Laura S. Quinn and Kyle Henri Andrei - September 19, 2012
The use of smartphones and other mobile devices is on the rise. Find out how your nonprofit or library can tap into their popularity to deliver services and engage constituents in creative ways. Learn how to make your website mobile-friendly, provide information and experiences, take advantage of text messaging and QR codes, and more.

This article is courtesy of Idealware, which provides candid information to help nonprofits choose effective software. For more articles and reviews, go to

It's a mobile world out there. In a 2012 study, Pew Research found that 88 percent of all American adults had a cell phone — and 49 percent of those were smartphones. People are using phones not just to make calls, but to text message, check email, surf the web, take pictures, and play games.

This increasing use of mobile phones has some important implications for nonprofits and charities. On the one hand, NGOs can't assume everyone will be looking at their information on a large computer screen — if you're providing online information or emails, it's important to consider how it will look on the tiny screen of a smartphone. On the other, there are some interesting opportunities for nonprofits too. People across a wide range of demographics are using cell phones, and in fact, many low-income audiences are more likely to have easy access to a mobile phone with at least a text-messaging plan than they are to have reliable access to the Internet via a computer.

This provides lots of opportunities for nonprofits and libraries to deliver services using mobile devices. Some aspects of the way these devices are used make them great for reaching tech-savvy or young constituents, while others provide ways to reach out to underserved populations. Still others can help social-benefit organizations save time and money in communications and data access.

Providing Information and Experiences

One of the most direct and simple services that can be provided through mobile devices is distributing information to your constituents. There are a few ways to do this — mobile websites, applications, and even QR codes — and different methods make sense for different audiences.

If your website is a primary outlet for disseminating information about your charitable cause, consider making it easily accessible to the segment of your audience using a small screen. While any website can be viewed on a smartphone, some are considerably more usable than others. To make it easier to navigate your website on these smaller screens, think about what a mobile user might be looking for and try to locate these key actions near the top left of the page — which is the default view of many smartphones — or visible even in a tiny, full-screen view of your site.

If you expect your information might be in particular demand by people on the go, consider looking into better ways to support mobile web browsers. Nonprofits are increasingly using a website-scripting technique called "adaptive design" to automatically display their website in different templates appropriate for different devices. With an adaptive design, a user on a desktop computer might see the site with a broad, three-column layout, while one on a smartphone might see a subset of that same content in only a single column. If you're using a content management system like WordPress, Joomla, Drupal, or Sitecore, it's likely that you could add an adaptive design to an existing site. If not, you may need to rebuild your site to accommodate a new template — not a small task.

You could also think about designing a new mobile version of your website that provides quick, high-level information and presents key actions in a format optimized for smartphones. Soles4Souls, a charity that distributes shoes to children in developing nations, has done a good job of building a mobile website that incorporates the same theme as its normal website and makes key actions, like donating or signing up for the email list, easily accessible.

Another way to provide information to mobile users is through the use of mobile applications, or apps. An app is accessible even when you're not connected to the Internet, which is an advantage for quick reference information, but users need to download the app first. This means there's an extra step for your constituents — they need to find and install your app before they can use it. An app will also be more expensive to create than a mobile website. They require more expertise to build and are specific to the phone platform. In practice, an app makes more sense than a website only when it's important that it's viewable offline or when you expect constituents to actively want the functionality the app can provide.

A good example of a mobile app is the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch, which provides an alternative to its popular paper "pocket guide" to the types of fish that are caught or raised sustainably. The quick reference allows diners to check the sustainability of particular types of fish.

Mobile apps can do more than just provide information. They can also provide experiences. Mobile games target children and teenagers, who can learn about an issue while having fun. For example, Food Force, a mobile game developed by the United Nations World Food Programme, teaches players about food supplies, scarcity, and humanitarian aid. The game Phone Story, by Molleindustria, shows players the environmental and humanitarian costs of smartphones and other consumer electronics.

Some larger nonprofits and charities have successfully developed complex apps, but it can be both expensive and time-consuming to do so on your own — chances are you'll need to hire someone. In addition, because apps are platform-dependent, you would either need to create your mobile game for a single platform — and don't assume without research that your whole audience is using iPhones — or otherwise develop completely separate versions for iOS, Android, and Blackberry.

Another hands-on way to educate your constituents is through QR codes. A QR code is a barcode made up black, square dots arranged in a square pattern on a white background. These are sometimes included in outdoor advertisements and can be scanned using one of many free smartphone apps. Museums are using them to provide additional online information about exhibits. The Children's Museum of Indianapolis created detailed articles on Wikipedia to explain more about their exhibits and placed QR codes throughout the museum to direct patrons to the articles. This way they were able to provide more material than could easily fit on exhibit placards. With some creativity, there are other ways to use these as well: for example, teachers could use QR codes as an educational scavenger hunt for students.

The built-in GPS on smartphones has many interesting applications. The Winona County Historical Society has created a walking tour that provides information about historical landmarks based on the user's physical location. A location-based app like foursquare could also be used to provide a tip or piece of information specifically to people visiting a particular location.

Facilitating Conversations via Texting

Mobile texting holds a huge amount of promise as a communications channel, depending on your needs. Some groups of people, including college-age students and low-income adults without stable housing, are more likely to communicate via text messages than they are using emails, telephone calls, or direct mail.

If you have cell phone numbers for constituents, you can easily send them text messages — you don't even need to have a cell phone, as services like Google Voice allow you send messages to one or more cell phones using a computer. Sending reminder texts about appointments or using text messages to make quick arrangements can be highly effective. For example, the HOWA Family Center, which pairs teenage mentors with elementary school-age mentees, found that text messages are a more reliable and timely means of communication than email. They've seen much better responses from their mentors since adopting text messages as their primary means of communication.

One-on-one texting can also be used to replace more traditional conversations. Crisis Connection's TXT4LIFE service is a suicide prevention text message hotline for teenage constituents. The organization has had great results, receiving 30 times more text messages than phone calls and allowing them to reach a greater number of teens in trouble.

If you collect a whole list of mobile phone numbers, you can send text messages to your constituents like you would a broadcast email. Services like Connect2Give and software tools like Mozes, MobileCause, Mobile Commons, and Mobile Accord let you store phone numbers and send messages to the list. This can be useful in reaching out to a large and specific population, like reminding voters to go to the polls on Election Day, or sending out quick tips for people living with diabetes.

Text messages can also be used for automatic two-way communication using a "branching" set of responses. For example, a supporter who texts "HELP" to a particular number could get information back asking if they're able to help volunteer at an upcoming event. If they answer "YES," they get information about the event in response; if they answer "NO," they might be offered another opportunity.

If you have more to invest in text-based solutions, consider integrating text messages with a database. For instance, the Blue Ocean Institute set up a system that would pull information from a database — if someone texted the name of a fish to the service, it replied automatically with environmental concerns about the sustainability of that kind of fish.

You could also pull texts you've received into a database, opening up possibilities for surveying or collecting information from a mobile audience. The Central Maryland Transportation Alliance put together a service to let high school students and commuters rate the quality of bus services by texting in their thoughts. All the responses are analyzed to find opportunities to improve the services.

Supporting Field Staff

While mobile technology can certainly be used to provide services directly, you can also use it to support services. If your NGO has field workers or other staff who are often away from the office, a smartphone or tablet can help them stay in touch while also reducing their need to return to the office frequently. Online databases allow staff to look up client information from their mobile device and even update records, fill out paperwork, or file notes electronically.

Headway Emotional Services has seen great success in this area. Most of their field staff are counselors who travel to multiple high schools. They now use a database that allows them to access client records, case notes, and other important information on their mobile devices. This saves time, enabling them to provide services to more clients.

Mobile technology also allows field staff to collect data directly from constituents, especially quick information that people can easily enter. Some constituents may be even more willing to provide their information because they want to play with the device. For instance, this might be a useful way to collect email addresses or cell phone numbers of patrons at a theater or survey visitors at a health center.

Is there a way you can let constituents use a tablet or mobile device to learn, interact, or otherwise further your mission? The Reach School, a preschool for kids on the autism spectrum, bought iPads, durable cases, and special education apps for each of its seven classrooms. The teachers use the tablets to show videos, to provide individual kids with learning games, and sometimes just for fun as a special treat.

Wrapping Up

Cell phones and mobile devices provide increasingly powerful options for directly providing program services. While some applications of this technology, like creating mobile apps or pulling mobile texts into or out of databases, may require significant investment to create, a number of possibilities are within reach of any nonprofit. For example, creating a smartphone-friendly web form can be an easy way to let constituents or staff fill out information from anywhere they want. Texting is a free and easy way to communicate with people who can otherwise be difficult to reach.

As these devices become increasingly ubiquitous, they become more and more useful to nonprofits and libraries. Don’t think of them as one more piece of technology that you need to fit into a technology plan, but rather as a communications method that can increase your options for communicating with the people you serve.

Additional Resources

Image: Mobile device, Shutterstock

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