Before you copy the ice bucket

publication date: Sep 10, 2014
author/source: Janet Gadeski

Imagine a fundraiser that takes off spontaneously on a social-media powered surge and brings in nearly fifty times the money that you’d normally raise over that two-month period. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge did just that. Now thousands of charities are wondering how they can do the same.Janet Gadeski photo

Can you launch a bucket challenge? Should you? Before you decide, and now that observers have reflected during the calm after the storm, here are some things to consider.

Timely, mission-relevant

Let’s start with the obvious. Ice buckets are so last week. In fact, buckets in general are pretty much done. In the fast-paced world of the Internet, unless you’re new, you’re usually ignored.

But that can be good news. ALS didn’t think up the ice bucket challenge. Nor did the association have the chance to offer branding materials, communication guidelines and all the usual coaching that goes along with peer-to-peer fundraising. As a result, the communication about ALS, especially in the earlier videos, was often poor or absent. And the connection between an ice bucket and the disease is still anyone’s guess.

Instead of an ice bucket challenge, find an action that’s actually related to your mission. Then communicate that connection non-stop. One quickly improvised clone was The Biodiversity Group’s Mud Bucket Challenge. Because they explain that an average bucket of mud contains 16 trillion living things, the connection is clear.

You can find other mission-relevant bucket-based campaigns here (along with a few that seem to make no sense whatever). It’s too late to copy the bucket, but very important to emulate the relevance of the bucket-dump to the cause.

Have a plan

What will you do with the money? Why is it so important to raise more than usual? If you raise more money than you normally spend in a year, do you have a long-term action plan that demonstrates high impact and wise stewardship of those funds over several years? ALS did not, largely because the viral campaign caught it by surprise.

In short, craft a vision and communicate it. You’ll make a compelling case for both the impact of donations and your ability to put them to the highest and best use. Make sure you have the staff time to run a social media campaign, the network to support it, and a committed, passionate group of supporters ready to respond and reach out to their own networks. Here are some tips for making the most of social media during a challenge campaign.

Think long term

How will the challenge engage not just your friends’ friends, but supporters who will stick with you for years for your mission’s sake? Do you have capacity to absorb and communicate with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of new donors? What will you do to welcome them to your cause and hold on to them?

Think about the kind of people you want as long-term supporters, and be careful not to frame a challenge that excludes them. Many seniors, for example, would find the ice bucket challenge daunting, even dangerous. Yet seniors are the lifeblood of many nonprofits. If you want to attract more seniors, think of a challenge they can actually accomplish.

Stay generous

Near the end of August, the ALS Association filed an application to trademark the phrases “ice bucket challenge” and “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.” The association saw the move as a measure to protect the ice bucket challenge from misuse. But coming from a charity that had just reaped a stunning windfall, the application was viewed as a shameful attempt to keep other charities from enjoying similar good luck.

Trademark attorney Erik Pelton even compared the ALS Association to several corporations that tried to appropriate and patent the phrase “Boston Strong” for their own products after the Boston Marathon bombing.

The lesson: As with any other fundraising success, prepare to be imitated if your challenge works. And respond graciously if you respond at all.

Plan for the worst

The ALS Association didn’t set up the ice bucket challenge, so it can’t be blamed for failing to head off some of the negative outcomes. But if you initiate your own online challenge, be ready for things that might go wrong.

  • Washington Business Journal reporter Mark Nolan noted that ALS Association CEO Barbara Newhouse wrote to three major charity ratings organizations asking them not to penalize the association for its windfall. The letters were a response to Charity Watch founder and president Daniel Borochoff, who had previously commented that a charity “can get in trouble for having too much money in the bank.” (The irony of a charity having to apologize to a watchdog for an overwhelmingly successful, nearly cost-free fundraiser deserves an article of its own.)
  • Many observers noted the waste of water and energy used to make and transport the ice, and called the movement environmentally irresponsible. Others flagged the contrast between people able to waste drinking water and people who did not even have safe water to drink, let alone pour over their heads.
  • Professional athletes were among the earliest to post videos of themselves pouring ice over their heads. But Caitlin Dewey published an article citing Neilsen research that showed challenge supporters were predominantly sports fans and “bros.” That connected an unfortunate stereotype to ALS - even more regrettable after the National Football League imposed an indefinite suspension on Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice after his assault on his fiancée.
  • Reports of injuries related to the ice bucket challenge began to emerge. Whether due to carelessness or attempts to make the challenge ever more extreme, they led to negative media coverage. In Scotland, a teenager is even thought to have died after first pouring ice water over himself, then jumping into a flooded quarry.

The nice thing about being an early adopter, rather than an originator, is that you can learn from what happened the first time. So take time to consider whether something similar would truly work for your charity.

You’ll find more tips on whether and how to start your own crowdfunding challenge on Beth Kanter’s blog.


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