Helping High School Students Stay on Track

Thousands of Canadian teenagers living in low-income communities drop out of school each year. Why? The reasons are complex, but it’s widely agreed that staying connected with them and providing ongoing support increases the likelihood that a student will make it through to graduation.

Pathways to Education was created to provide resources and a network of support to help students build the foundation for a successful future. One of the many tools it uses to accomplish this mission is text messaging.

“It reflects the modern reality that almost everyone has a cell phone or access to a cell phone,” said Jason Shim, Associate Director of Digital Strategy and Alumni Relations.

Why Text Messaging

For years, Pathways heard from students that they didn’t like getting phone calls. They complained that they didn’t have enough minutes on their cell plans, or that it wasn’t always convenient to take a call. Over the years, staffers noticed that more and more of their calls were going unan- swered and unreturned.

In 2009, Pathways explored text messaging as a way to send students information about events, scholarships, deadlines, and networking opportunities. It was already collecting cell numbers because they were often more reliable than home numbers or email accounts, so it already had a list to draw from. Initially, staffers only texted one-to-one from organization-issued phones and found this to be incredibly successful. “Instead of spending time trying to get in touch with them, we could spend more time being in touch,” Shim said.

Shim then explored the use of automated text messages to remind students about events they’ve signed up for. His theory was that students would be more likely to attend an event if they re- ceived the information via SMS. Pathways did not have baseline data to compare, but anecdotally Shim has noticed many fewer “no-shows.”

Shim has also found that texting is a useful tool for volunteer recruitment. He often speaks with groups and makes a pitch for new volunteers at the end. In the past, he’d share a phone number or email address. Now he puts his cell phone number on the screen and tells people to get out their phones and text him their contact information so that he can add them to his volunteer list. “I tell them, ‘I’m going to stand here until my phone starts buzzing,’” Shim said. And it works.

Pathways is a federated organization, which means that its 18 locations operate independently. Shim works at the national office, but has heard from other locations that they’ve implemented broadcast text messaging using other services. However, other offices might not be using text messaging at all.

Choosing the Right Platform

Pathways considered a handful of texting platforms, but felt many were too expensive. Shim also considered an open source option, but found it too cumbersome to use.

With cost as a primary consideration, the team ultimately decided on ClickDimensions, a market- ing automation tool for Microsoft Dynamics CRM that it was already using for broadcast email and that provided engagement data on the messages it sent, and Twilio, which served as the engine for sending out each text message.

This combination worked for Pathways for a number of reasons.

Twilio’s integration with ClickDimensions was clean and reliable. There was only one small hic- cup in the setup process. At first the messages were not going out. When Shim looked closer he noticed a discrepancy between how phone numbers were listed in the CRM system versus how they needed to be formatted for Twilio. Shim worked with the Director of IT at Pathways to add a small bit of custom script to make the numbers usable by Twilio, a small change which would be difficult for a small nonprofit that did not have an experienced techie on staff.

Twilio also offers grants to nonprofits through its Billion Messages for Good program. Through this grant, Pathways was able to get about 50,000 text messages for free—far more than it would be able to use in a year. The grant, combined with its existing relationship with ClickDimensions, essentially made the texting program free.

Shim compares this setup with One Call Now, a robust platform that can send voice, email, and text messages that are customized to each recipient but would cost Pathways about $1,000 per year. “There’s a trade off between cost and technical challenge,” Shim observed. “With One Call Now, a sales person helps you get started really quickly. If you have a Twilio grant it’s more useful if you have in-house expertise or a built-in integration.” For some local Pathways offices, the benefits of the system are worth the cost, but for Shim and the national office it was not quite the right fit.

For one-on-one texting, Shim likes to use MightyText, which syncs with an Android device, allow- ing you to send SMS messages from your desktop and read WhatsApp, Snapchat, and Instagram notifications.

The Limits of Integration

Text messaging is not a primary function of ClickDimensions, so while the integration exists and is useful, it does not take full advantage of what Twilio can do.

“One of the limitations of the platform is that it doesn’t do two-way messaging,” Shim said. If staff members want to solicit responses, they have to include a phone number in the text and hope that students click it and send a message.

ClickDimensions also does not provide a short code, which means that recipients don’t have the opportunity to opt out of receiving text messages.

“Twilio has a lot of interesting functionality that we haven’t been able to use yet,” Shim said.

Looking to the Future

Shim sees a lot of potential for using messaging services to automate communications and stay connected with students, although it would require Pathways to find a new platform. He’s inter- ested in the potential of texting bots to provide information to students who text in looking for answers. He thinks there’s also potential to expand the use of broadcast texting in programmatic work—for example, if a time-sensitive offer comes up or an immediate action is needed.

What’s Shim’s advice for other nonprofits considering text messaging outreach? “Ask your students. It’s easy to spend a lot of time thinking about it, but it’s about meeting individuals where they want to be met.”

Learn About Texting for Your Nonprofit

Download Text Messaging for Nonprofit Program Delivery to learn about text messaging basics, how to get started with texting, and common ways nonprofits use texting. It also includes tools, best practices, and more. Get the report now!