Way Cool!

Lou Gehrig’s Disease probably hasn’t received this much exposure since the Hall of Fame first baseman’s famous farewell speech at Yankee Stadium 75 years ago.

The Ice Bucket Challenge dominated social media in August, sparking a viral campaign that had people posting videos but also donating to the ALS Association and other charities related to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s Disease as it is more commonly known.

In what has probably become the largest viral campaign for a charity since Invisible Children’s #Kony2012, the Washington, D.C.-based national office of The ALS Association and its 38 chapters nationwide reported donations of more than $31.5 million between July 29 and Aug. 19 — almost 20 times more than the $1.9 million raised during the same time in 2013. The organization gained nearly 638,000 new donors at presstime.

ALS Association and its affiliates had reported $4 million raised since July 29 with 75,091 new donors, heading into the week of Aug. 11, when the campaign really took off:

  • Aug. 11, $1.4 million, 29,816 new donors
  • Aug. 12, $1.64 million, 34,746 new donors
  • Aug. 13, $1.920 million, 37,937 new donors
  • Aug. 14, $1.926 million, 37,048 new donors
  • Aug. 15, $2.06 million, 38,623 new donors

The premise was simple: dump a bucket of ice over your head; post a video to social media; and, challenge three friends to do the same within 24 hours, or they can opt out and make a donation to ALS Association. Most folks apparently did both, dumping ice water on their heads as well as making a donation.

“Most organizations have a big moment. This is the moment for the ALS Association, and it will be important to capitalize on it for lasting and engaging change,” said Andrew Rothman, director of digital communications at Blue State Digital. The key will be turning this one-of-a-kind moment into sustained, long-term advocacy and financial support for the organization, and continuing to engage new donors while turning them into repeat donors, he said.

“It’s great that they have a sudden surge of millions of dollars but if this time next year, the vast majority of new donors haven’t given again, and don’t really understand what the illness is or what the organization does, then they won’t have done their job.”

In a message posted on Aug. 16, ALS Association President and CEO Barbara Newhouse promised to “invest prudently in helping people with ALS and their families and caregivers in the battle against the disease, while resolutely pursuing all avenues to extend, improve and ultimately save lives.” Increased awareness and unprecedented financial support will “enable us to think outside the box,” she said, adding that the organization plans to continue to fund groundbreaking research in laboratories across the globe.

ALS Association supports 98 active projects and recently announced $3.5 million in funding for 21 new projects, she added.

The ALS Association put out a press release Aug. 6 inviting people to take the #IceBucketChallenge but the organization credited Pete Frates with inspiring the social media campaign. The former Boston College baseball team captain, who was diagnosed with ALS five years ago and worked with the ALS affiliate in Boston for years, posted a challenge on Facebook in late July, using a Vanilla Ice song rather than dumping ice on himself (because “ALS and ice don’t mix”). The stunt took off locally and spread virally, with celebrities taking part, increasing exposure.

“What resonates on social media today are authentic, social experiences that don’t feel manufactured. The key to organizations replicating the magic is to make sure they’re tapping into what makes people resonate with people,” Rothman said.

“What’s interesting is it arose organically, it wasn’t the ALS Association hiring an agency and sitting around a table coming up with clever ideas,” Rothman said. “It’s sort of like they won the lottery without buying a ticket,” he said.

Winning the lottery is almost as hard as hitting a hole-in-one. That’s how Leigh Kessler describes it as he advises charities to avoid trying to become the next viral sensation. “You have very little control over it, and so many unique things must come together to make it go viral,” said Kessler, vice president, communications, for CharityEngine, a McLean, Va.-based agency. Instead, nonprofits should build their infrastructure and use technology to motivate do-it-yourself fundraising opportunities where people can come up with their own unique or goofy fundraisers, creating pages that go viral a few degrees. “Enough of those and you will have success,” he said.

Any viral campaign is not without its critiques. Some called it typical “slacktivism,” taking the easy way out to “raise awareness” via social media rather than donate money or do something constructive.

“It’s natural for people to want to be counter-intuitive of something that everyone is really into, especially among the “online chattering class, but you can’t argue with that fact that millions of dollars have been donated,” Rothman said. To the campaign’s critiques about donors not being involved, Kessler points to runners who register for a charity 5K race: some don’t always have an interest in the cause but their dollars still count.

The closest thing to the Ice Bucket Challenge that Rothman can point to might be Movember, in which people grow facial hair for the month of November and chronicle their progress on social media all the while also soliciting donations for an organization dedicated to men’s health. It’s similar in that Movember also asks people to publicly do something goofy — but not too risky — while also tapping into the narcissism of social media.

Scott Paley, managing partner at Abstract Edge, a “digital marketing company for do-gooders,” said the Ice Bucket Challenge worked “precisely because, more than anything else, we put ourselves first.” The campaign helped people reinforce their self-identities by tapping into deeper psychological needs, he wrote on his blog:

  • People like to be seen as having a sense of humor and being a bit mischievous
  • Being challenged makes us feel popular
  • A bit of public peer pressure doesn’t hurt in driving action
  • Challenging others provides a sense of schadenfreude

Once ALS started releasing fundraising numbers it was the ultimate response to those calling it just a social media stunt, according to Rothman. “It’s proof of the concept that greater awareness and engagement can really lead to success in terms of dollars raised, which usually happens on a much longer timeline,” he said. It’s usually more of a “slow burn” for nonprofits, getting people in the door, getting them to take meaningful actions and ultimately converting them into donors or advocates. “The entire cycle unfolded over the course of a few weeks, which is an encouraging sign. Activity on social media really can impact the bottom line, even if it’s hard to measure directly,” Rothman said. NPT