Be smart in mimicking Ice Bucket Challenge

The explosive success of the Ice Bucket Challenge for the A.L.S. Association is driving charities everywhere into a frenzy trying to figure out how to create their own breakthrough social-media campaigns to raise money and awareness for their cause.

And for good reason: In three weeks, the Association raised $42 million from 739,000 new donors, many of them only too happy to be videotaped being dunked with ice water as a challenge to their friends to contribute to the cause.

Those dollars more than doubled the $19.4 million the Association had raised in the fiscal year ended Jan. 31, 2013, to fund research on amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, which attacks nerve cells and leads to total paralysis.

Only 30,000 Americans — in a population of nearly 320 million — have ALS.

Charities that dream of replicating that success may want to curb their enthusiasm. While social media offer huge potential to reach vast numbers of people instantly, the runaway success of the Ice Bucket Challenge is the rare exception, not the rule.

The stiff odds should not, of course, stop charities from looking for innovative ways to help people understand the needs they address, and to secure the resources they need.

But a far more critical and immediate need for all charities, including the A.L.S. Association and other groups that turn to social media to raise money and awareness, is how to engage donors for the long term, beyond their initial gift.

According to fundraising researcher and consultant Adrian Sargeant, the biggest factor for donors in deciding whether to continue to give to a particular charity is how the charity’s fundraising staff treats them.

And the proof is in the pudding: Sixty percent of donors who give to a charity for the first time typically do not give a second time, and those first-time givers typically make only small donations.

Yet instead of attending to their existing donors, many charities spin their wheels trying to reduce the loss, or “churn,” of first-time donors.

A huge challenge for charities is to truly understand their existing donors and what they care about; help those donors understand the problems their organizations address, and their impact; and help donors see that investing in the charity will help improve those problems while advancing the donors’ values.

Clever social-media gimmicks like the Ice Bucket Challenge have the potential of raising a lot of money and awareness for a cause quickly. The bigger job for all charities is to cultivate donors for the long-term by getting to know them, telling stories that inspire them, and getting them more involved in your organization.

Want help?

Philanthropy North Carolina is a consulting practice that provides writing and strategic communications support for nonprofits, foundations, colleges and universities, and others working for social good.

To find out more about hiring Philanthropy North Carolina to work with your organization to improve your communications, contact Todd Cohen at 919.272.2051 or

One response

  1. Interestingly, the ALS Association is now being criticized on social media for the percentage of their funds that go to research. Strange how people will believe that their donations are going to research because someone on Facebook said that, when that is only one of the things the nonprofit does. The ALS Association never asked for their contributions, much less their contributions towards medical research, but nonprofits obviously have little control over a viral fundraiser like this one. I’m hoping that they are able to make their case why they fund what they do, especially to people who are potential long-term donors–and that people will learn to research the causes to which they donate, especially if they want it to go to a certain activity. #getsmart

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