Baya Clare typically donates money to her favorite charities online or by checkbook. But while watching an emotional appeal for Haiti on TV, she grabbed her cell phone and typed in a $10 text message donation.

With that move, Clare leapt aboard the latest trend in philanthropy -- mobile giving. This once-obscure way to donate suddenly has gone viral, ignited by public passion over Haiti and widening awareness of the power of the cell phone.

More than $600,000 -- in $5 and $10 payments -- was texted from Minnesota to Haiti groups in the past six weeks, according to the mGive Foundation based in Colorado. The national figure is more than $37 million. Minnesota nonprofits now are eyeballing the strategy, which makes charitable giving faster and more convenient than ever.

"I never heard of this before, but it was so easy,'' said Clare, a website developer from St. Paul. "I typed in the Red Cross number that was listed, then typed 'Haiti' in the message field, and then pressed the SEND button. ... The $10 donation appeared on my next phone bill.''

Texting donations gives cell phone users the freedom to post donations anytime, anywhere, something that's particularly appealing to donors in their 20s and 30s. They're among the more than 260 million Americans who carry cell phones.

"I'm not someone who carries a checkbook, and I rarely have cash,'' said Meg Canada, 34, a Hennepin County librarian. "But I always have my cell phone. And I love giving to causes I believe in.''

Minnesota groups ranging from Second Harvest Heartland to Greater Twin Cities United Way have experimented with the trend. Others are on alert.

"We've been getting inquires about this, but it's so new we don't have any resources,'' said Christine Durand, spokeswoman for the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits. "We're hearing that more and more organizations are checking this out."

"Checking this out'' would have been impossible just a few years ago. The technology was first tested with certain donations to victims of the tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005, which raised about $125,000 and $250,000 respectively, said Jim Mannis, CEO of the Mobile Giving Foundation, one of the pioneers promoting the technology.

But in the past two years, the major wireless service providers have come on board, lending their billing services and technology to the cause, Mannis said. At the same time, a handful of groups such Mobile Giving Foundation and mGive Foundation have begun actively recruiting nonprofits to try mobile technology.

The first big test was on "American Idol" in 2008, during which $500,000 was raised for a children's charity by singer Alicia Keys, said Jenifer Snyder, executive director of the mGive Foundation. Soon major charities were signing up for the service, but not exactly at breakneck speed.

Haiti changed that.

Slow start in Minnesota

In Minnesota, experiments with mobile giving before the Haiti earthquake were underwhelming. The Greater Twin Cities United Way gave it a try at a Minnesota Twins game and a St. Paul Saints game last year, said Andy Goldman-Gray, senior vice president for marketing.

The telephone number for sending text donations was flashed on the scoreboards. Announcements were made during the game. The result: About $1,000 in $5 payments at each game.

"We were doing this in the middle of the game and people were distracted,'' said Goldman-Gray, "as opposed to people watching George Clooney on TV and the [Haiti donation] numbers going up.''

Second Harvest Heartland also had uninspiring results at a Minnesota Wild game last spring said Joan Wadkins, spokesperson for the food bank.

"I think it was too early in consumer awareness,'' said Wadkins. "Look at online giving. It's taken time for people to feel comfortable with it. ... Having your donation show up on your phone bill is probably mystifying to people.''

But when Meals on Wheels held a fundraiser at Harriet Island in St. Paul last fall, one in four people set down their wineglasses and whipped out their cell phones when told, "You can make a $5 donation right now!''

Although the experiment raised just $200, it created a buzz, said Katey Davern McCabe, spokeswoman for Meals on Wheels. It offered participants a new way to give, and Meals on Wheels one more avenue for fundraising.

As text donations go mainstream, they're likely to be most effective for nonprofits addressing emergencies and immediate needs, as well as those focusing on "heart-felt'' causes, said Ashley Schweitzer, a spokesperson for the Nonprofit Assistance Fund in St. Paul.

"You can do this from anywhere,'' marveled Clare. "It has enormous potential for nonprofits. I think it's the wave of the future.''

Jean Hopfensperger • 612-673-4511