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Text2Change: How to Leverage Text Messaging for Communication



Text2Change: How to Leverage Text Messaging for Communication

Nasser H

We want to hear how you are using text messaging in your work. Tweet your programs and experiences @zerodivideorg using the hashtag #Mobile4Impact!

by Vanessa Mason

In March of 2015 we sent three staff members to Austin, Texas to represent Zero Divide at The Nonprofit Technology Enterprise Network (NTEN) 2015 Nonprofit Technology Conference (NTC). During our sessions at the 15NTC we presented "Text2Change: How to Leverage Text Messaging for Communication"  and shared our key considerations for the design and implementation of text messaging programs. The post below was adapted from an article we wrote for the 17th issue of NTEN's Change journal, focused on "Digital Inclusions and Technical Divides."  The article in Change summarized key points of our 15NTC our presentation.  


Underserved of vulnerable communities have historically seen poor social economic mobility as a result of both concentrated poverty and isolations from knowledge and resources. The evidence clearly shows that there are distinct opportunities for mobile phones and SMS to have unprecedented impact on interactive sharing, learning and social engagement, providing unprecedented connections that would not otherwise exist. Although SMS is not a panacea, text messaging is valuable for social impact for many reasons:



of text messages are opened within 4 minutes compared to 22% of emails in the first few hours.


Thanks to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC)’s Lifeline program or “Obama phone program” as it’s known colloquially, low-income consumers can obtain free and discounted mobile handsets and pre-paid wireless plans.


The portability of mobile phones means each individual has access to real-time communication wherever they go, regardless if they are a 14 year teen in school or a 45 year old adult who is homeless.


Given the direct and indirect negative impacts of poor health outcomes ranging from economic opportunity to educational attainment, ZeroDivide has focused on text messaging as an essential tool to achieve health equity but address the social determinant of health for greatest social impact. Some of our recent eHealth text messaging programs include:


Text4Wellness and Mobilize-4-Fitness: ZeroDivide and the Institute for eHealth Equity (IeHE) partnered on two mobile health projects, with support from the Aetna Foundation, aimed at improving the health and wellness of African American women who are members of historically African-American congregations. Text4Wellness is a mobile health service that provides timely and actionable information about healthy lifestyles, disease prevention, general wellness, and active living. Mobilize-4-Fitness is a mobile health service that provides mobile reminders to fitness class members about staying active and engaged in healthy living through fitness and wellness tips.


Stress Less About Sex: ZeroDivide, in partnership with the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center (API Wellness) in San Francisco with support from the Google Bay Area Impact Challenge, developed Stress Less About Sex, a text messaging intervention for high school youth (ages 14-18) living in the Tenderloin to increase knowledge and awareness about sexual and reproductive health needs and to increase utilization of family planning services at API Wellness offered through the Family Planning, Access, Care, and Treatment (Family PACT) program.


Text messaging, like any other technology, is not without its obstacles. One common concern involves the relatively high rate of turnover for phone numbers. Within Vulnerable communities, phone numbers may change over time as a result of lost of stolen handsets or changing pay-as-you-go plans. GoogleVoice is a great tools to use to ensure that you keep in contact with your constituents. Once your constituents secures a GoogleVoice numbers, any phone that he or she uses can be linked to the GoogleVoice number to receive calls and texts. 

Another frequently asked question involves privacy and security issues. While ZeroDivide can provide general guidance, it's helpful to turn to the experts in your particular sector for specific advice. In general, it's best to not share sensitive or very personal information via text messaging as transmission is not secure. Additionally, mobile phones an be picked up and viewed by almost everyone at any time even with passcodes.  Other recommendations include: 



Advise constituents on how delete messages for especially sensitive issues (i.e. rescue from human trafficking).


Implement two-step authenticationconnected to SMS to ensure the right person sees the correct information at the right time.



Starting a text messaging program is not as simple as pushing a button. Often the first step involved research to ensure the approach adopted as the best change of success. 

ZeroDivide's co-design methodologies for SMS content development in eHealth brings together data from academic literature with insights from underserved communities to develop culturally competent messaging that reinforces social support and community assets needed to spark and sustain behavior change that reduces health care disparities and ensure that traditionally underserved are not left at risk of being left further behind. The most important questions to answer while designing a tech messaging intervention are:

  • What problems are you trying to solve?

  • Why are you using text messaging for your population?

  • What impact do you want to have?

The answers to these questions will help to determine your research methods and identify and build relationships with key stakeholders. These key stakeholders will help to ensure the acceptability of the intervention as well as support recruitment and engagement and often serve as crucial key influencers for the program.

For more resources about text messaging for social change, take a look at our Mobile4Impact Series. The Series,  supported by the Vodafone Americas Foundation, explores key issues in the design, funding, deployment, and evaluation of nonprofit and public sector mobile interventions in underserved and vulnerable communities, focusing on three technologies: SMS (Short Message Service), Geo-location and Mobile App Development.

ZeroDivide's Recommendation to Scale and Sustain #SMS4Impact:

  • Foundations need greater familiarity and expertise in mobile tech interventions and their potential role for accelerating social change.

  • Nonprofits and Social Service Agencies should employ thorough internal planning to assess organizational readiness before offering text messaging.

  • Technologists should embrace and pursue public-private community partnerships with tech sector entrepreneurs, developers and businesses to ensure the design and implementation of the most impactful mobile tech solutions.

For more information about #SMS4Impact or the #Mobile4Impact, you can download the entire report series at .