What Small Non-Profits Can Learn from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

by Fundraising Authority Team

Ice Bucket Challenge Fundraising

It’s all over the place. From celebrities to your Facebook friends, newscasters to rock bands, it seems like everybody is taking the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. And, as a result, the ALS Association has raised over $62 million in the past month alone, compared to just $2.5 million in the same period last year.

The Challenge has led to some memorable video (including George W. Bush getting doused by Laura, and Conan O’Brien taking the plunge).

It has also led to controversy (The ALS Association funds at least one embryonic stem cell research study, leading many Catholics and evangelical Christians to donate to other organizations doing ALS research instead).

There have been a number of articles published recently about the lessons that non-profit organizations can learn from this viral fundraising phenomenon (including by my colleagues Claire Axelrad and Amy Eisenstein).

But many non-profits I have spoken with are disheartened by the Ice Bucket Challenge, because they think that it proves that major viral fundraising success is only available to large national and international fundraising organizations. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today, I want to present 5 lessons that small non-profits can learn from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to help them use new and innovative fundraising techniques to raise more money than they ever thought possible.

Lesson #1: Viral Fundraising is Unpredictable. It’s Hard to Force, but Can be Primed.

Given its fundraising success, it’s hard to remember that the ALS Association did not launch the Ice Bucket Challenge. No fundraising or marketing consultant designed the Challenge to “go viral.” Instead, the campaign was launched as a generic “do this or donate to any charity” challenge on social media, turned into an ALS-specific challenge by supporters of the ALS Association, and then picked up by celebrities, which really helped it go viral.

What the ALS Association did do, on the other hand, is create, over several years (or even decades) a group of loyal donors and supporters who were active with the Association both online and offline. The Association communicated with these supporters, cultivated them, and interacted with them through e-mail and social media.

This primed the pump for the Ice Bucket Challenge… leading supporters to turn the generic challenge into once focused on ALS research, and others to jump in to publicize it once it started to spread. These supporters were connected to the Association and enthusiastic about supporting it, so when the opportunity arose, they jumped at the chance. “Overnight success” like this actually takes a lot of time and relationship building.

Lesson #2: Massive Fundraising Success is Relative

When non-profits see that the ALS Association raised over $60 million in just one month through the Ice Bucket Challenge, they figure, “viral fundraising isn’t for us… we could never raise that amount.” This is the wrong way to look at this type of fundraising success.

Remember – fundraising revenue increases are all relative. The ALS Association increased raised about 30 times more this past month then it did in the same period last month. What would that type of fundraising increase mean for your non-profit?

If you normally raise $20,000 per month, it would mean that you raise $600,000 this month. If you normally raise $100,000 per month, it would mean that you raise $3,000,000 this month. Imagine what that type of fundraising increase could do for your organization and the people you serve.

Even if you only raise 10 or 20 times more per month through a viral fundraising campaign — wouldn’t that still make a big difference? “Going viral” for a small organization may mean being shared hundreds of times on Facebook (instead of millions of times) and all by people in one local town (instead of internationally)… but that’s ok. If you are a small non-profit working in one small corner of the world, your viral fundraiser can be limited to that one area.

Of course, the real trick for the ALS Association (and for your non-profit, if you achieve viral fundraising success) is holding on to those new donors who give through the Challenge. It will be tough – very tough – but with the right cultivation strategy, the Association will be able to hold on to some of those donors for the long-term.

Nonprofit-Social-MediaLesson #3: Social Media is Important for Fundraising

If your non-profit only takes one thing away from the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, it should be this: social media is important for non-profit fundraising. Without people sharing it on Facebook and Twitter, the Challenge would likely not have taken off at all.

Of course, be sure that you use social media THE RIGHT WAY. Get involved, be active, and send people back to your site often so that you can maintain control of your donor communications. (For more information on how to use social media the right way at your non-profit, read The 5 Keys to Successfully Raising Money on Social Media).

Lesson #4: Creativity Wins

After hearing about the Ice Bucket Challenge for the first time, many people in the fundraising world asked, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Fundraisers had that reaction because the Challenge is new and exciting – indeed, its uniqueness is one of the things that has helped it go so viral.

So – what should you do if a board member of your organization calls you and asks you to launch an Ice Bucket Challenge for your non-profit? If you want to be honest, you should tell her that it won’t work – not the way she wants it to.

Donors are used to your fundraising methods. You send out a couple of letters each year, and they give a certain amount for each letter. You hold two events, they buy tickets to both. You send out one e-mail appeal each quarter, they give $25 each time. Your donors – and your organization – gets caught in a fundraising rut.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has caused an online (and offline) sensation because it is so different – so creative. Like nothing people have seen before. That creativity has shaken donors out of their malaise and caused them to give to an organization they may not have supported before (and may not support again).

Don’t go rushing to copy the Challenge for your non-profit. Instead, ask yourself if there is a way you can bring some creativity and life to your fundraising efforts… a way you can shake donors out of their malaise and bring them a new and energizing opportunity to give to your non-profit. Perhaps you can launch a crowdfunding campaign, a new participatory fundraising event, or yes… even a new viral fundraising campaign to raise more money for your organization. Just don’t let it include a bucket full of ice water.

Lesson #5 – Sneezers Matter!

sneezerOne of the biggest keys to the ultimate success of the Ice Bucket Challenge has been the numerous celebrities (A-list, B-list, Z-list and everything in between) who have taken the challenge and shared the results on their social media pages, TV shows, radio programs and at live events.

These celebrities have helped spread the word about the Challenge because they are “sneezers,” people that have large networks, people who lots of people respect and/or want to emulate, and people who are not afraid to encourage their friends and followers to participate along with them.

Guess what? Your non-profit may not have lots of celebrity supporters, but you do have sneezers in your network. You do have donors, volunteers, staff members and friends who have large e-mail lists or social media followings, or who have lots of friends (either socially or at work) and who are both respected and willing to get people involved with your fundraising campaign.

The key is that you need to engage your sneezers. You need to talk to them, reach out to them, and get them invested in your next fundraising campaign. Then you need to ask them to help you spread the word.

Sneezers matter – without them, it is impossible to get a fundraising campaign to go viral.


Photo Credits: Steven Depolo, Jason Howie, Tina Franklin


Related Articles from The Fundraising Authority:

Get Your Free Copy of How to Hold Great Fundraising Events

Sign up for The Fundraising Authority Newsletter, and getHow to Gold Great Fundraising Events your free copy of How to Hold Great Fundraising Events: A Step by Step Guide. This 10 page special report will guide you through the entire process of running a profitable fundraising event for your organization. Click here to get your free copy today!

claire axelrad August 24, 2014 at 4:52 pm

Nice take on the Challenge Joe! I think these are all great lessons for nonprofits and, in particular, that social media matters.

Tina August 25, 2014 at 7:40 am

Thanks for this article, my husband and I have been talking about the ice bucket challenge and how viral it has gone…. Certainly made us think about creative ways to help our canine cancer foundation here in VT! Thanks again!

Joe Garecht August 27, 2014 at 1:03 pm


Glad you enjoyed the article!


Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: