Five years ago, the Ice-Bucket Challenge swept the US. Dozens of celebrities such as Bill Gates, Taylor Swift, Oprah Winfrey, and Jeff Bezos joined hundreds of thousands of people in pouring buckets of ice over themselves. Participants raised money for the ALS Association, to support ALS patients and advance ALS research, while challenging their friends to do the same.
The Ice Bucket Challenge (summer 2014) is an extraordinary example of a viral campaign, that translated Facebook likes into monetary donations. The campaign was a civil celebration that channeled the users of the social network’s inherent desire for self-exposure into valuable philanthropic participation. More than 2.4 million videos were tagged on Facebook as part of the challenge, and 115 million US dollars were donated to the ALS Association, almost double the organization’s fundraising record from the previous year. Also, the campaign introduced over 600,000 new donors to the nonprofit, which the ALS Association tried to turn into long-lasting supporting donors.
The campaign was a huge success. The donations of 115 million US dollars, a small sum in comparison to the extensive amounts of money needed for medical research, funded the research that discovered five new ALS-associated genes. Most ALS patients do not inherit the disease, but the linked genes give researchers a starting point from which to develop treatments. Currently, there are more Phase III clinical trials taking place than ever before; these trials are in search of extending and improving ALS patients’ lives. Nationally, the ALS Association said it had increased the number of patients served by 28 percent, to reach more than 20,000 people.
The Ice Bucket Challenge’s success derived from a perfect combination of the sense of self-exaltation donors feel after they donate (the ‘warm glow’) and the integral narcissism of using social-networks. This combination, of our desire to see ourselves as benevolent and our desire to present the best version of ourselves — and to be recognized for it via likes on Facebook — constructed a very effective fundraising campaign. Not only did the combination mean that the donors felt kindhearted after they donated, but they also publicly commemorated their charitable act and personality, while gaining love and respect from their social-network followers.
The surprising success of the Ice-Bucket Challenge is also an essential lesson in fundraising for nonprofits. First, the ALS Association presented a high bar for other nonprofits, when it demonstrated maximal transparency of the allocation of the donations, for research and treating patients. Transparency is a critical aspect to strengthen donors’ and volunteers’ trust in nonprofits; they want to know that their donations and time were beneficial and used for a good cause and to drive change. The more the public learns about the value and effect of its donations, the easier it will be to encourage and mobilize the public to become more charitable and recognize the importance of nonprofits in civil society.
Significantly, the Ice Bucket challenge doubled the ALS Association’s fundraising and brought with it the complicated challenge of suddenly managing a considerable sum of money. On the one hand, the influx of revenue was a joyful event for civil society. On the other, it forced the nonprofit to quickly adapt and adjust its strategy for social change, to utilize the donations in the best way possible. For example, a nonprofit that works according to a specific model of supporting patients must strategically consider how to expand the treatment and services for the patients, without destabilizing its entire existing system. Since nonprofits must understand that this increase in revenue could be a one-time occurrence, they must strategically plan their activities based on their previous fundraising data. The lesson the Ice Bucket Challenge teaches us is that nonprofits must ask themselves strategic questions such as: Is it practical to increase staff numbers? Which new ambitious projects will be sufficient to fulfill the nonprofit’s goals and missions?
In addition, such a successful digital campaign yields thousands of details about one-time donors whom the nonprofit can now try to turn into long-lasting donors. This is not an easy task. Many of the donors do not have an emotional link to ALS or the ALS Association, and it is unlikely that they will donate to this cause in the future. This is why one of the most critical lessons for nonprofits is to define in advance their donor-relations strategy, to make sure they can maintain ties to their most dedicated donors, the ones who hold ALS close to their heart; the nonprofit must focus their efforts on keeping them as long-time donors.
The Ice Bucket Challenge was an overwhelming success that hasn’t been duplicated since the summer of 2014. It started as the private initiative of families of ALS patients. Then quickly took off and became viral after Peter Frates, a former captain of the Boston College baseball team who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012, posted his ice bucket challenge video on July 31, 2014. Right afterwards, hundreds of thousands of people poured buckets of ice water on their heads and launched ALS research to loftier heights than ever before. Would it be possible to recreate the success in the future? I’m not sure, mainly because there isn’t one secret formula to engage the public in such a vast social activity. The challenge created a high bar of innovation and fundraising for nonprofits that compete for the public’s attention in the digital jungle.
The most important lesson for nonprofits from this viral event is how challenging it is to manage a sudden massive inflow of money. Donors and nonprofits should learn from this that we need to donate to nonprofits regularly and not just during unique campaigns. After all, the Ice-Bucket Challenge was a one-time event, but the ALS disease is constant.