By the time you read this, over $24 million in donations will have been collected via premium text messaging for the Red Cross’ relief efforts to aid those impacted by the horrific tragedy of the earthquakes in Haiti. To be sure, this is a credit to the generosity of the American people and to the need, which remains great. It also marks a watershed moment for mobile giving. There were milestones, however, along the way. Crises drive inspiration, invention, and adoption.

In December 2004, back when I was working for Verizon Wireless, a team of which I was a member determined donation via text messaging was an ideal way to aid those impacted by the tsunamis in southeast Asia. A messaging aggregator and service provider, mQube (since acquired by Verisign and then Mobile Messenger), stepped up to provide the platform to donate $5 per text message to the efforts of relief organization CARE in the region. Eventually, several carriers joined and it represented the first such cross-carrier mobile giving effort.

MobileGivingMost importantly, the concept was made concrete: When devastation strikes, news spreads fast, and at that moment of psychic impact, all of us want to help. And the device that’s most frequently with us to do so is a cell phone.

In August of 2005, fate visited a destructive blow to New Orleans and the surrounding areas with Hurricane Katrina. The team of carriers was reengaged and widened, mQube stood ready, and the Red Cross was designated the beneficiary. Texting “GIVE” to “2HELP” would result in a $5 donation. Participating carriers agreed to forward every dollar donated, rather than take the share they might for a typical premium transaction like a ringtone.

Carrier and Red Cross press activities gained some attention, but it was the viral impact of word-of-mouth that generated the most attention. The code was mentioned in morning talk shows, appeared on jumbotrons at NFL football games, was forwarded via email, mentioned in places of worship, and scrolled in the tickers of the 24/7 broadcast news coverage.

But at the time, text messaging wasn’t yet the de facto communication method it is today, and social networks, particularly Twitter, remained nascent and were generally limited to smaller groups of like-minded users. The catalyst that’s made the Haiti relief effort so powerful has been the combination of smart devices like the iPhone, the non-stop funnel of social network and news data, and text messaging.

In 2007, management of the 2HELP code was transferred to the CTIA’s Wireless Foundation, which continued to support it on behalf of the Red Cross. Organizations including the Mobile Giving Foundation and mGive sprung up to support mobile giving, creating a cottage industry.

With 2008 came the landmark mobile activism event of the Obama campaign, which leveraged passion and urgency of a different sort to help secure the White House for a previously little-known freshman Senator from Illinois. There, too, the pressure, in this case the need to fuel youth voters viewed as undecided or under-activated, drove innovation. And all the elements (adoption, viral, catalyst) were rising forces.

Now in 2010, we see the culmination of these themes. The State Department smartly tweets instructions for mobile giving, a healthy virus spreads, and instant action for good takes hold. It is our collective need to help, and to innovate in order to do so quickly, that has powered mobile giving to achieve this landmark moment.

Sidenote: While apparently most popular, mGive’s “Haiti” to 90999 for the Red Cross is but one of multiple mobile giving options. You can find a full list from Mobile Giving Foundation here. And you can find mGive’s full list of supported partners here.

Doug Busk is a veteran of the wireless data space. He held two stints in product leadership at Verizon Wireless and Cingular (now AT&T) in addition to several mobile content vendors. Over the 2008 campaign, he acted as volunteer technical advisor for the Obama mobile efforts. He is currently leading business development for mobile applications platform supplier Whoop.