Wiley Rein Lawyers Help Expedite Record-Setting Text Donations For Haiti

Monday, August 2, 2010 - 00:00

The response by many Americans to the earthquake in Port-au-Prince, Haiti has been to make a charitable donation - by sending a text message. Since the disaster, donations via text message have combined to raise more than $43 million. The use of text messaging for mobile giving was being pioneered by a small non-profit called the Mobile Giving Foundation, leveraging pro bono legal support from Wiley Rein partners Scott Delacourt and Dan Hassett and associate Jerita DeBraux Salley, when the Haiti relief effort mushroomed into the biggest mobile-giving event in history.

Mobile Giving Foundation founder and CEO Jim Manis, a wireless industry veteran with years of experience in commercial marketing, identified the mobile channel as an ideal medium for charitable giving and established the Mobile Giving Foundation to make that vision a reality. Using part-time, in-house legal resources, Manis was able to launch the Foundation, but he quickly realized that scaling the operation would require more legal horsepower. That's when he turned to Wiley Rein for pro bono support - and when the Haiti disaster hit.

"I knew Jim from my work as Legal Counsel to the Mobile Marketing Association," said Wiley Rein partner Scott Delacourt. "He approached me about providing pro bono regulatory and contract/transactional support to a Foundation he had pioneered to promote charitable giving on cell phones. His main concern at the time was the demands of holiday charitable giving. Then in January the Haiti earthquake happened."

The infant mobile-giving industry matured quickly in response to the Haiti disaster. The generosity of the public response to solicitations for donations via text message was overwhelming. Through a massive number of small $5 and $10 donations made on mobile phones to charitable organizations like Doctors Without Borders, the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund, UNICEF, the Salvation Army, Habitat for Humanity and many others, the Haiti relief effort grew into the biggest mobile-giving event in history. The $43 million raised exceeded by an order of magnitude all previous mobile giving campaigns combined.

As the scope of the disaster response expanded, so did the scope of the work being done by the Wiley Rein team. The lawyers who had originally been retained to provide regulatory counseling and to negotiate contracts with the charities participating in the Mobile Giving Foundation network found themselves scaling and re-inventing mobile giving on the fly. As public expectations increased that millions raised instantly through text messaging could also be distributed and put to work in Haiti just as fast, the Wiley Rein team set to work re-negotiating agreements between wireless carriers and charities to ensure that funds normally available at the end of wireless carrier billing cycles - thirty days or more plus time for accounting true-ups - could be made available in a matter of days.

At the same time, demand from new charities to enter the mobile-giving space took off. Charities of all stripes doing fundraising for Haiti relief quickly came to see the mobile platform and text messaging as essential to their campaigns. Wiley Rein lawyers Dan Hassett and Jerita Salley, who had been negotiating the occasional agreement, found themselves signing up charities in droves, and doing so in time to get the charities up and running for Haiti fundraising.

Wiley Rein has also been assisting with the Mobile Giving Foundation's growing pains and the need to expand the scale and efficiency of its operations as demand increases. While supporting growth of the Mobile Giving Foundation's network of charities, the Wiley Rein team also negotiated agreements for the Foundation to transition to a new technology platform provider, enabling the MGF to more efficiently manage and track high-volume text-message giving campaigns and to more seamlessly interact with its growing network of charities. Moreover, the Wiley Rein team led the charge on developing terms and agreements for the authorization of new Application Service Providers - technology companies that design and implement mobile-giving campaigns for charities lacking the technical expertise or resources to create such campaigns on their own. In essence, all aspects of the Mobile Giving Foundation's activities have required additional legal support as text messaging has emerged as a charitable-giving channel equivalent to phone banks, direct mail and e-mail.

While the pace of work has slowed down some in the wake of Haiti, the demand from charities seeking to add the mobile channel and text messaging to their fundraising arsenals is still high. Interest in mobile giving for ordinary course, non-disaster fundraising is way up, and demand continues to spike in response to disasters. The Mobile Giving Foundation is currently supporting text-message giving in support of relief efforts surrounding the Gulf oil spill, including campaigns by the National Wildlife Federation and others. Gulf oil spill relief donations driven by prominent "calls to action" - industry jargon for an exhortation to donate by text message, accompanied by an explanation of how to do so - during a celebrity telethon sponsored by Larry King have already proved the value of mobile giving to the National Wildlife Federation, which continues to use text messaging in ongoing campaigns.

The experience of representing the Mobile Giving Foundation has been rewarding, both personally and professionally, for the Wiley Rein lawyers involved. "We have had a crash course in mobile marketing," said Wiley Rein partner Dan Hassett. "Through the Mobile Giving Foundation representation, we have developed a deep knowledge of this emerging marketing medium and the legal challenges involved in developing and launching these campaigns. It has all been in support of a great cause, but it has become an asset to my practice as well."

The pro bono experience has been invaluable to Wiley Rein associate Jerita Salley as well. "There aren't that many opportunities to do pro bono work in my practice in business and finance. The Mobile Giving Foundation representation has given me an opportunity to take the lead on negotiations with major charities like The Clinton Foundation. Those experiences are hard to come by as an associate."

Jim Manis has nothing but praise for the Wiley Rein team. "We knew we needed a law firm with longstanding experience with the ins-and-outs of the wireless space, everything from the commercial relationships to the regulatory environment. Wiley Rein fit that bill. They've been terrific and able to handle anything we've thrown at them."

Despite getting more than he bargained for when he was first approached by Manis, Delacourt is happy Wiley Rein could support a worthy cause. "The Mobile Giving Foundation representation is definitely more work than we planned on," said Delacourt, "but we're pleased we could do our part to promote mobile giving and facilitate fundraising for disaster relief."

Daniel B. Hassett , a Partner at the firm, advises financial institutions, government contractors, software vendors and other clients on the acquisition, protection and commercialization of software and other technology assets. He can be reached at (703)905-2809. Scott D. Delacourt is a Partner in the firm's Communications Practice. He advises clients on communications, regulatory and transactional matters. Mr. Delacourt has a broad range of experience in wireless, broadband and telecommunications issues. He can be reached at (202)719-7459. Jerita L. DeBraux Salley is an Associate in the firm's Corporate Practice. She counsels broadcast, cable and other clients with regulatory and transactional work, including asset acquisitions, divestitures, exchanges, corporate formation and dissolutions. Ms. Salley can be reached at (202)719-7179.

Please email the authors at dhassett@wileyrein.com, sdelacourt@wileyrein.com or jsalley@wileyrein.comwith questions about this article.