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Essay

What the Ice Bucket Challenge Means for Fundraising

By September 1, 2014 No Comments
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As the calendar turns to September and the ice bucket challenge seems like so last month, I’m left reflecting on this unparalleled fundraising phenomenon.

What does it mean when every imaginable stripe of celebrity – from George W. Bush to Charlie Sheen – and millions of average folks pour freezing water over their heads and write checks? What does it tell us about ourselves and our culture?

To begin with, in case it wasn’t official yet, social media has changed the world. The ice bucket challenge had to have social media (and the cell phone technology that powers it) to exist. This couldn’t have happened a few years ago.

Social media is bottom up, not top down. It flattens (some like to say “democratizes”) communication. It’s important to remember that the ALS Association did not engineer this – the idea wasn’t original to ALS and the genesis of the whole thing was some people in the Northeast wanting to help a friend.  All the charities now trying to figure out how to create the next viral fundraising challenge are wasting their time. You can’t orchestrate this stuff – the minute it looks orchestrated you’ve lost your audience. Social media is grass roots, and guys like me have the same platform as anyone else. Part of the appeal of the ice bucket challenge is that I can do the same thing as someone famous and post my version of doing it on the same platform as the famous person. I liked Benedict Cummerbatch’s video and Patrick Stewart’s video, but I also liked the self-identified redneck who rigged a tarp full of ice water and shot holes in it to douse himself. In the social media world, fame isn’t an either/or thing. All of us our famous, some just not as famous yet as we know we’re bound to be.

And not being famous or popular enough to be named by someone is the downside of this challenge.  Millions of people were named, but millions of others who probably would have participated were never challenged by someone else.

Because of the extreme physical nature of the challenge, the other group left on the sidelines was senior citizens, the most generous segment of our population. But that didn’t seem to matter because the ice bucket challenge captured millennials, the coveted and mostly untapped generation fundraisers dream about.

The ice bucket challenge illustrates something else fundraisers dream about: crowd sourcing or crowd funding.  Crowd sourcing works the way the general public always thinks fundraising should work, which goes against the received wisdom in the world of philanthropy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard some variation of this: we have a budget of $100,000 and there are 1000 potential donors for the cause.  If everyone just gives their $100 we’ll be all set.  But fundraising never works that way. What works is the 80 / 20 rule – 80% of the money is going to come from 20% of the donors and 20% of the money is going to come from 80% of the donors. That’s always true.  Except in this case it isn’t.  Effectively using social media not only flattens communication, it flattens fundraising. The ice bucket challenge is raising millions (almost $100 million) by crowd funding. 

The challenge also shows the great difference between fundraising and development. The development staff at the ALS Association must be looking at the ice bucket challenge as an unexpected blessing that has a shadow side.  The blessing of course is the $100 million they received in July and August – a notoriously slow time of the year for fundraising.  Last year during these months they raised $2.7 million.  But the shadow is they know this isn’t repeatable. How many ice bucket challenge donors are giving their first and only gift to the ALS Association?  It’s in the millions.  What chance do the ALS Association gift officers have of effectively connecting with these donors and keeping them engaged in the fight to end this disease?

The closest parallel to the non-engaged donor phenomenon of the ice bucket challenge is the red buckets of the Salvation Army that appear every year at Christmas time.  We see the buckets, put a few bucks in, and go on our way, totally un-engaged with the cause. It must be very hard to raise money for the Salvation Army the other 11 months of the year because they have no idea who their donors are.  

There is no logical explanation why the fight against ALS suddenly became our favorite cause in the summer of 2014. Wouldn’t it be great if we decided every month to adopt a new scourge to combat?  Wouldn’t it be great if we did something like this month by month and endlessly entertained ourselves through self-flagellation that generated billions? A friend told me this weekend he’s already seen a charity encouraging people to take the whipped cream pie challenge. I am sure that’s not going to work. But I am also sure that in the crowd-sourced world of social media we have the power to do things we’ve never imagined.  I wish I knew how to harness it.     

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 

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