Nonprofits promoting good causes constantly struggle to raise their profile – and raise funds. Now the $100 million success of the ALS “ice bucket challenge” has everyone wondering: “Why didn’t we think of that?” What can other organizations learn from the ALS Association’s triumph?
• “You Gotta Have a Gimmick?” It worked for the stripers in Gypsy and it worked for the ALS Association. Charities often tug at the heartstrings, but people quickly tire of hearing about society’s intractable problems. A fun, photogenic activity like dumping ice water on your friends – well that’s a lighthearted change of pace. But if the ice bucket challenge is followed by a wave of copycat stunts, the public will not react well.
• Video and social media rule. Many nonprofits struggle just to maintain their websites and donor mailings; creating videos and using social media are still on their to-do lists. The ice bucket challenge not only proved the appeal of cute videos shared via social media, but also showed that organizations can – if the stars are aligned– just step back and let the public create and share the content that promotes the organization’s message.
• Celebrities rule, but we knew that. Nonprofits have long known that celebrity involvement is invaluable to raising public awareness and money. The well-known and highly placed individuals who accepted the ice bucket challenge greatly accelerated the viral video dissemination. By challenging each other, they lent authentic support to the cause and brought in thousands of followers. So it’s one thing to nab a celebrity to speak at your annual gala; it’s quite another to have that celebrity engage a number of his or her influential friends.
• Minimal commitment provided maximum results. The ice bucket challenge required only the smallest commitment of time and/or money. Yet using the principles of “crowdfunding,” it raised millions of dollars.
• Listen to constituents. This fundraising phenomenon started in the “grass roots” and only later was adopted by the ALS Association, which continued to credit its founders with the idea.
• Old-fashioned communications worked. ALS Association President Barbara Newhouse told the Washington Business Journal that her organization helped launch the challenge by sending out a single email to its list of some 60,000 donors, and that “this just went viral on its own.” But the organization followed up with daily news updates, website modifications, and other practical communications.
The ice bucket challenge throws cold water on some long-held notions about how nonprofits and charities achieve success. There’s clearly a new role for social media, crowdfunding, video, and the occasional well-considered gimmick. But the results of a viral campaign cannot be anticipated, estimated, or added to the annual budget. Nonprofits still have to do the difficult work of winning the hearts and minds of the check-writing public.