Ice Bucket Challenge offers invigorating fundraising lessons
As social media are deluged with videos of people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads in the name of advocacy and philanthropy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), other healthcare not-for-profits can find marketing lessons in the now-famous challenge that they can use for their own charitable request efforts.
Chief among those lessons, be it for disease-related fundraising or a new hospital wing, is the power of grass-roots marketing. Another is to convey a sense of urgency about contributing, while personalizing your appeal, because people relate more readily to other people than to faceless causes, marketing experts agree.
To call the Ice Bucket Challenge— which has its origins outside of the official not-for-profit ALS organization—an Internet sensation would be an understatement. Without any association spending for a traditional fundraising campaign, it’s become a national phenomenon, attracting the attention and support of actors, athletes, musicians and even former presidents.
“One of the reasons this worked so well was because it was grass-roots driven. As it was passed from person to person, it gathered so much momentum,” said Caryn Stein, vice president of communications and content at the online fundraising platform Network for Good. “The other piece was that it tapped into the idea of social networks, not just as a technology, but as a mode of our communication.”
People who may not previously have heard of ALS were introduced online to its symptoms and stories. They saw videos of people such as Pete Frates, 29, a former college baseball player who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012, participate in the challenge despite being unable to speak.
“It’s crazy how it exploded,” said Julia Campbell of J Campbell Social Marketing. “I’m from Beverly, Mass., where Pete Frates is from. I saw it here first, and then all of a sudden, the Red Sox were doing it, and then celebrities.”
And that’s part of what has made the campaign so successful, experts say.
“Anyone can do it. Anyone can participate,” said Rhoda Weiss, healthcare consultant and chair of the American Marketing Association’s Executive Leadership Summit. “If we’re going to create healthier communities, it has to be simple. We have to engage our audience.”
That engagement starts with a simple call to action, experts say. For the Ice Bucket Challenge, it means someone simply records a video of ice water being dumped on himself or herself, posts it online and then names—or tags— at least one other person to follow their lead.
“The old adage is people give to people, and this is a prime example,” said Adam Wilhelm, senior consultant at not-for-profit marketing consultancy Campbell & Co. “It’s peer-to-peer fundraising at its best.” The 24-hour window to participate, which begins its countdown when a person is challenged, helps spur people to action as well.
“It creates a sense of urgency,” said Sarah Barnes, director of marketing and communications at Campbell & Co.
That urgency has spread across personal networks because of the way the campaign harnesses social media, allowing participants to reach far more people than just their immediate peers.
“You have to be where your donors are,” Campbell said. “I always see social media as a handshake. People need to know you before they donate to you.”
And people have certainly donated. Between July 29—when the Ice Bucket Challenge kicked off— and Aug. 29, the ALS Association received $100.9 million in contributions from existing donors and more than 3 million new donors. That’s more than a 3,500% increase in donations compared with the same period last year for a disease that strikes about 5,600 Americans annually.
Experts caution that while organizations hoping to duplicate the ALS Association’s success can look for lessons in the campaign, they should not view it as a magic bullet to be slavishly copied in their own efforts.
“Not all campaigns will go viral,” Stein said. “But that’s not the only goal. It’s to see the message spread within your community.”
“We would be foolish to suggest in any way that this is a negative for philanthropy,” said David Flood, vice chair of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy. “Some are trying to suggest that this is a flash in the pan, but flashes in the pan get things started.”
And according to Weiss, “You have to ‘friend raise’ before you fundraise.”
The ALS Association is building on the momentum of its more than 3 million new friends, and keeping those new contributors engaged will be the real challenge for the organization in the coming weeks and months. Reaching back out to donors in the same way they came in—through social media—to express appreciation and show them the impact of their dollars is one way to continue the conversation, experts suggest.
Cleveland Clinic CEO Dr. Toby Cosgrove accepts the Ice Bucket Challenge.