How the Ice Bucket Challenge Got It Right

by Danielle Irving

Unless you are living under a rock, you are probably familiar with the ice bucket challenges that have been popping up all over the Internet in support of ALS. In case you just returned to the Earth from an extended time in outer space, let me re-cap this latest phenomenon: You post a video dumping a bucket of ice water on your head on social media and nominate some specific other friends to do likewise within a 24-hour window. If they do not comply, they are obligated to make a donation to ALS in lieu of the icy bath. Of course, the most altruistic folks dumped the ice bucket AND wrote the check.

Regardless of anyone’s opinion about the challenge, there is no denying it was a huge success. It went viral, and even Bill Gates and former President George W. Bush filmed themselves taking an ice bath. According to the NY Times, as of the end of August, the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised over $41 Million. More than 739,000 new donors have given money to the organization. That’s more than double the $19.4 million in total contributions the association received during the year that ended Jan. 31, 2013.

So how did the Ice Bucket Challenge get it right? It was:

-Accessible:  All you needed to participate in this challenge was a bucket of ice water and a way to film yourself getting it dumped on you. President Bush had help from his wife Laura. My friends from college had help from their kids.  The bottom line is that whether you were an ex-President or a six year old, this challenge was accessible to just about everyone. When planning fund-raising strategy for the year, do we think in terms of making it accessible to everyone? If all we offer is a $150/plate gala, we are missing out on some of the smaller gifts that might come our way from a direct mail campaign. Also, smaller gifts are a great entryway to our nonprofit and a way to increase the breadth of our pool. With proper cultivation, sometimes these can lead to major gifts down the road.

-Easy: The challenge was to dump a bucket of water on your head. Ummm….It doesn’t get much easier than that. Oh, and write a check. When planning fundraising strategies for our non-profits, do we make it easy for everyone to participate? Do we have a click to donate button readily available on our homepage? Do we offer a text-to-donate campaign? Do we offer mail-in options on our direct mail pieces for those who want to donate old-school through a check and electronic funds transfers for those who would prefer to give on a monthly basis? We have to make it easy to give. Or people won’t. It’s that simple.

-Peer-to-peer: One of the great things about the challenge was the opportunity to do it yourself and then call out someone else to participate also. That’s the kind of enthusiasm we need for our non-profits. A CNN article explains it like this: "So the critical innovation of the Ice Bucket Challenge is not the funny visual. It's what comes at the end of the videos, when the soaked participant looks into the camera and challenges family or friends to do the same. As the great songwriter Steve Goodman knew, we all want to be called out by our names.” Do we ask Board members to give a personal gift and then solicit others? We need them to share their passion for our cause with the same type of zeal and excitement that the ice bucket folks generated.

-Creative/Fun: The opportunity to film yourself in this challenge allowed each of us to be our own Oliver Stone and create the most interesting film clip possible. Kim Kardashian took a selfie of hers as Ellen dumped the water on her head for her TV show; Ben Affleck’s wife Jennifer Garner dumped water on his head and then he pulled her into their pool with him. Bottom line: the challenge provided an avenue for creativity. Does our nonprofit offer any creative or fun ways to involve supporters? Do we have volunteer programs that are engaging and fun? Days of service can be a meaningful and fun way to get folks engaged with our mission. Do we accept gifts-in-kind? That’s another way to involve supporters who may not be ready to write a large check yet. But it’s a great way to get them in the door and begin to get them excited about our cause.

-Social Media: We live in a society where people love to craft an image of themselves through social media. Whether it’s a witty Twitter update or an airbrushed profile pic on Facebook, many of us work hard at creating an image of the person we’d like to be. Social Media allowed people to share their creative videos. Do our organizations have Twitter pages? Can people check in at our events on Facebook? Do we encourage them to? Do we actively work to get more fans/friends/people to follow us? Do we post regular updates? If we aren’t using social media to our advantage, we’re missing a big opportunity.

-Recognition:  According to this article in the Indystar, “The Ice Bucket Challenge is a narcissist’s bonanza. You get to show yourself doing something marginally daring. Everybody will see how fit, handsome, or witty you are — and how altruistic!” Do we have ways of recognizing benefactors so they can see their names in lights? Whether it’s a printed honor roll, giving circles, a luncheon honoring our volunteer of the year or a major gift donor’s name on a building, fresh and creative ways to recognize donors may be just the ticket to continued support.

Regardless of our opinion on the Ice Bucket Challenge, there is no denying it was a financial success. Not many of us would sneeze at an influx of $41M to our organizations. While we can’t all be the next ALS, perhaps we can learn from the wildly successful Ice Bucket Challenge and apply some of these principles to our fundraising strategies. This challenge may have just provided an icy jolt to our traditional fundraising ideas. If we don’t go with the flow of the times, we may just end up all wet.

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