It was Marissa’s 18th birthday when she was rescued from an abusive pimp by a team of undercover police officers. A text message saved her life. 

Marissa sent a text to the Polaris Project, a nonprofit organization that works to combat human trafficking in the U.S., and in just two hours the nonprofit and law enforcement officers coordinated a way to remove her from the dangerous situation. 

Organizations like the Polaris Project are using text messaging to solve trafficking cases like Marissa’s. The nonprofit is partnering with Twilio, a platform that lets developers integrate voice and text services into mobile and web applications, to build in SMS services into its crisis hotline.

Jennifer Kimball, a systems and data coordinator for the Polaris Project, shared Marissa’s story at Thursday’s Twilio conference and talked about how her organization is using SMS to effectively communicate with victims of human trafficking. 

The pilot program launched in March has been very successful, with over 300 unique text message threads corresponding to 248 hotline cases. Almost 80 percent have been sex-trafficking cases. 

“We’re seeing people under 18 who are reaching out directly over text,” Kimball said in an interview. “On the phone hotline that has been historically very rare for us.”

A Nonprofit Push

To further benefit nonprofit organizations like the Polaris Project, Twilio launched, a new initiative that will provide nonprofit organizations the communications technologies needed to have a greater impact on the communities they serve. promises to deliver “one billion messages for good,” and CEO Jeff Lawson said the company wants to make it easy for nonprofits to use Twilio to establish better communications tools. 

“We’re using the power of connections and communications to connect the dots,” Lawson said. “To close the gap, and make it so people that can help can connect with people who need help.”

The Global Effect

Multiple initiatives from Internet giants have surfaced this year, all with the ambitious goal of connecting the world to the web. But even if underdeveloped countries don’t have full broadband Internet access, their citizens are still connecting to each other via SMS, a resource that these tech companies could be potentially overlooking.

Smartphones saturate the U.S. mobile market, so it might surprise users that 70 percent of handset shipments were feature phones last year. Mobile data plans in developing countries are often the same price as they are in developed nations, so the high price point deters potential users. 

That’s why many nonprofits have begun using SMS to communicate with their consituents. The Twilio-powered project Clean Kumasi partnered with US Aid to raise awareness about the health problems caused by public human waste surrounding areas like schools, villages and other public areas in Ghana. 

The community-led total sanitation program uses SMS capabilities to enable users to text notifications of human waste in public areas. The program eventually added call-in functionality, as people often preferred that method of communication. 

The Success Of SMS

The Polaris Project is just one of the many nonprofits that are quickly embracing text messaging to better connect with their communities. Although they are still focused on the United States, they plan on expanding to other countries, and SMS capabilities would be a huge benefit. 

“We’re starting to see a few more crisis texting hotlines,” Kimball said. “Any organization looking to reach youth, this is the way to do it.”

Nonprofits are always looking for the most effective way to reach people in need, and SMS is proving to be a successful tool to further their missions. 

Images via Flickr and the Polaris Project