Budgeting for mobile advocacy

When your organisation decides to implement a project using mobile phones it is important to compare the cost of the project with the potential benefits it might bring.

If you prepare a budget and analyse how investment in a mobile advocacy project compares to investing in alternative methods, it is easier to make changes to existing budget allocations or to raise new funds in order to set up the programme or to keep up with the costs of running it. You may need to calculate pricing models if the project needs to sustain itself or generate revenues for the organisation.

Some reasons for investing in using mobile phones to support advocacy:


Understanding the goals of the project

Different mobile advocacy scenarios have different budgetary needs.

You should ask yourself some basic questions about the budget, including:

You should consider whether it would be possible to replicate or scale up the project, especially if the initial set-up costs are very high or the project is expected to become financially self-sustaining.

For example it might be much cheaper to implement an SMS project for your organisation after you have made the initial investment in setting up an SMS hub

Expenses that need to be taken into account are separated into set-up costs, technology costs and running and maintenance costs.

Set-up costs

There are several phases in setting up a mobile advocacy project. They might include:

All these are human resources costs since staff members will be required to spend time on these preparations. Alternatively you may decide to hire an external consultant, who can take responsibility for this work and help make decisions.

To be able to estimate these costs, it will be necessary to have a detailed project plan and a schedule, including: the estimated duration of each phase, information on who plays which role and what the responsibilities of each person are, and quotations from possible service providers.

Whatever you are trying to do and regardless of whether this preparation is handled by your staff or by an external consultant, software, hardware and technology services may be needed before or during the campaign, in order to handle:

Technology costs

Below is a list of items relating to technology that you may need to include in your budget, depending on your campaign scenario and the level of external services used. Some examples of things to consider are:

In areas where new technology purchases would make you vulnerable to crime, you may need to adopt additional security measures.

After the technical platform has been set up and properly tested, staff training might be needed, which will mean paying staff wages for extra time and may require the contracting of an external trainer.

You should also budget for some administrative costs, especially if frequent travel and phone use are required when negotiating with service providers.

Running and maintenance costs

In order to prepare an accurate budget, it is essential to estimate the type and amount of information that will be sent via the mobile network and to understand clearly the pricing principles of the mobile network operator or the messaging application provider.

A common pricing model for application providers is to charge a unit fee on top of the monthly or annual subscription fees. This means that you pay for every piece of information sent, and sometimes also to receive information. For example, for each SMS message sent a small fee is charged, and if you send more text messages, the cost will increase. Generally, different types of data have different prices. Data categories are: SMS units, MMS units, ringtone units or general data units (the size of your messages, videos or voice recordings will determine how much it costs to send them, but some kinds of data cost more than others). The units are often measured in kilobytes or megabytes.

As seen with the set-up phase, human resources costs can become one of the biggest expenses in this phase of a mobile advocacy campaign.

In addition to these project and campaign management tasks, you may need to handle media enquiries and other types of communication, to monitor your project and evaluate its progress against the goals that you have set, and other tasks demanding attention and time from your staff.

You will also need to take into account the additional financial management your campaign will require, because you'll have to monitor payments to your external service providers and try to avoid paying high unit prices unnecessarily.

How much it costs to run and maintain the technology will depend on which technology platform you choose for the campaign. Commercial services such as Internet connection subscriptions or additional insurance fees will require ongoing payments, but these are fairly easy to estimate.

Unplanned contingency expenses should also be allowed for, such as computer part repairs, replacement of damaged SIM-cards, or insurance costs if equipment is stolen. If part of the technology platform is being developed specifically for the campaign you may end up having to pay to develop additional functions.

Costs of using commercial SMS services

It is always recommended that you compare the prices offered by different providers. Local providers tend to have cheaper rates than international companies. Costing should include the testing of the SMS-application, making sure that guidelines and manuals are provided, and checking the terms and conditions of the contract (note particularly any promises made by the service provider about the quality of services offered).

Remember that some service providers have special cheaper fees for NGOs. For example, BulkSMS provides SMS to South African non-profit organisations at the lower cost of $0.03 per message, regardless of the number of units purchased.

Many of the online bulk SMS providers only charge per unit for text messages sent via the tools that they themselves provide (for example, a web-tool or desktop application). However, sometimes, especially when you are using an application that allows you to both send and receive text messages, the pricing may seem confusing, especially if the total cost is a combination of set-up, subscription and unit fees. A more detailed article on pricing, which explains commonly used unit pricing options, may be found at:


Here are some examples of the cost per message in different countries: Image:SMScharges.png

Note that these prices are based on sample pricing information in October 2007 and that this is not a comprehensive list. Local operator prices refer to the typical cost for one SMS sent from mobile phone to mobile phone within each country. Bulk prices per SMS unit are taken from the following web-sites: http://www.clickatell.com, http://www.bulksms.com, and http://www.its4sms.com.

The costs of success

In many campaigns the organisation in charge cannot predict or control exactly how many text messages they may end up sending and receiving. Therefore the full cost of the campaign may vary. It is important to think about what might happen if your campaign is very successful.

As the example below shows, unforseen success may increase your costs way above the limits of your budget unless you try and provide for these eventualities. You could decide to charge a fee for people to send you messages, although this might affect the success of the campaign; or you could use a technology platform that doesn't charge you unit fees to receive messages.

For instance, say an organisation is planning to ask their members to sign a petition by responding to an SMS message. The petition request would be sent to all 10,000 members whose mobile phone numbers are saved into the membership database. Based on previous campaigns, the campaign manager estimates that every fourth member will respond to an initial petition request followed up by a reminder a few days later.

Because the organisation is using a bulk SMS service, the service provider will charge a fee for each message sent or received (the price list indicates that each message sent to 10,000 numbers will cost $ 0.05 and each message received will cost $0.10). Therefore, in case the campaign turns out to be highly popular, either among the members, resulting in a 100% response rate, or even beyond the membership (people may forward the message to their friends or colleagues), the campaign manager should prepare additional budget estimates for these scenarios.

Number of people targeted: 10,000

Messages sent to each person: 2

Cost of sending each message: $ 0.05

Estimated response rate: 25% of the 10,000 people contacted

Messages received from each person: 1

Cost per message received: $ 0.10

Total Unit costs at estimated response rate: 10,000 * 2 * $ 0.05 + 25% * 10,000 * 1 * $ 0.10 = $ 1250.00

Response rate if every member responds: 100%

Total Unit costs if every member responds: 10,000 * 2 * $ 0.05 + 100% * 10,000 * 1 * $ 0.10 = $ 2000.00

Estimated maximum response rate: 5000% (500,000 people responding to the petition)

Total Unit costs if the petition becomes a national success: 10,000 * 2 * $ 0.05 + 500% * 10,000 * 1 * $ 0.10 = $ 50,000.00

Because the petition is organised to support an important cause which might get attention from beyond the membership base, you may run a financial risk resulting in unacceptable costs. If you cannot pay for enough units, some of the messages will not be received, which means your campaign will be less successful than it might have been.

Common challenges

Again, the chosen campaign scenario, complexity and size of the project will determine how challenging the budgeting phase will be. However, there are some typical challenges that most organisations will encounter, especially when planning their first mobile campaign. This section briefly introduces these challenges and provides hints on how to avoid them.

How to plan the most cost-efficient approach?

Two major budget decisions an organisation will need to make for each project are:

It is possible to run a mobile advocacy campaign without external help, even if you have no previous experience. Online bulk SMS services are often easy to use - see the 'how to' on How to use and manage bulk SMS services using a website .

However, if you are using any other systems it is often cheaper to contract a service provider to provide advice and technical capacity and allow staff to focus on core work such as general campaign management. If mobile projects are going to become an integral part of your organisation's strategy, running the campaigns yourselves would reduce costs in the long term by building internal capacity. A good way to start is to ask an initial vendor to help with the first project in order to provide training and transfer the necessary skills, so that external services can be kept to a minimum in the future.


Organisations often use new technologies to reduce the amount of time spent on specific tasks. In its simplest form, the use of mobile phones can reduce the communication and travel costs of an advocacy organisation.

In order to justify the costs of a mobile advocacy project there must be added value for the user, for example easier and faster access to relevant advocacy information.

If mobile campaign costs are covered from existing core funding or re-allocated from other costs, the most important task is to prepare a budget that does not exceed the funds available .

Certain mobile advocacy campaigns can be self-sustaining, and can even be used for fundraising.

Using short codes for fundraising

Most of the service providers offer short codes (special easy-to-remember phone numbers for the public to call or text in to). People who send you messages will be charged for every SMS they send to the short code. This service is based on a revenue-sharing model, where the service provider will charge you a percentage of all the revenue. Sometimes the provider is willing to waive their share of the revenue for a good cause. Marketing of such a campaign is very important and organisations have been known to approach the organisers of big events like outdoor concerts, or popular radio shows or newspapers for free promotional coverage. One disadvantage is that the service providers typically claim a much higher share of the income from these campaigns, compared to alternative donation models.

Be wary of high fees when fundraising via SMS short codes.

Some service providers may advertise that they will pass all revenues on to the organisation after the mobile operator's share has been deducted, and that they will only charge a fixed transaction fee per donation received. Others will not charge any transaction fees and will give a certain percentage of the total monthly revenues to the campaigner. The trend is for organisations to receive a lower percentage of small donations than of larger donations. For example, in South Africa, an organisation may still be asked to pay a small fee per message if the people phoning in are only being charged $0.15 per sent message. Therefore when respondents pay only a small amount, you may cover just the costs of a campaign, without a financial gain. South African organisations can loose between 30% and 70% of the funds donated by SMS in revenue-sharing and transaction fees. So if a person donates $5.00 via SMS, the organisation would only gain close to $3.50 from the transaction.

It should also be noted that the provider may set a monthly minimum amount that the campaign must reach or risk losing even the small amount of funds that have been donated via SMS.

Money-saving ideas

Some service and network providers may be willing to promote campaigns if the objective is aligned with the goals of an existing social responsibility programme.

If the campaign requires several regular purchases of bulk message packages, it may be cheaper to buy more messages less frequently.

If normal unit rates apply, weekend and evening campaigns are cheaper (if the network provider promotes off-peak rates). Also, purchasing SIM cards for each different network operator and then grouping recipients and choosing a SIM card according to which network is cheapest for each group may save money.

Budgeting checklist

Below is a checklist of all the possible costs that running a project involving mobile phones might entail.

Set-up Costs

Human resources costs (salaries, etc..)

Contracted service provider or consultant fees



Software or online-services (either license or subscription fees)



Running and Maintenance Costs

Human resources costs (salaries, etc..)

Contracted service provider or consultant fees

Marketing costs


Software or online-service