Mixing a Successful Fundraising Cocktail: Success of the Ice Bucket Challenge
“What made the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ so successful?” What worked?
By Lev Herrnson
Since going viral the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has raised an unprecedented $82 million (to date), nearly $80 million more than the same period last year. These are enviable results in the history of fundraising, by any accountancy. The ice bucket challenge will be remembered as a legendary campaign, perhaps one that even finances a cure for a horrible disease. The funds continue to roll in, and we’re all still cheering for the ALS Association’s doused inductees. The ingredients of this campaign cocktail are clearly all top-shelf. And, as we all sober up (and perhaps dry off) from the success of the bucket campaign, it’s time to consider, “What made the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ so successful?” What worked?
Here’s your fundraising bucket list:
Keep it Simple
“Donate or douse!” That’s the entire campaign. There’s no dinner, no response card, no environmentally wasteful flyer followed by a glitzy envelope bearing the unavoidable invitation: just a simple challenge over a friendly channel (Facebook) frequented by people who, for the most part, have the means to make a modest, or even generous contribution. The prospective donor, approached by a friend or loved one has a simple choice: contribute or make a public spectacle of yourself and film it. Giving is easier than making a video. (In my case, giving is easier than uploading my video – which is why we need teenagers.) And it would appear that, in most cases, those challenged both donated and doused, which makes the campaign all the more successful – it’s progression is viral. Support A by doing B and/or C; that’s simple.
For your cocktail shaker: The less complicated your campaign activity is, the better.
Make it Fun
The best fundraisers are “friend-raisers.” Encouraging your friends to join you in supporting a cause provides them the opportunity to lift themselves up, in addition to attracting new converts to the nonprofit. In the case of the ice bucket challenge, the appeal is fun and the -raising, be it fundraising or friend-raising, is secondary to the appeal of the campaign. People who’ve never heard of ALS nor learned anything about it since being challenged still doused and donated! Why? Because the campaign’s appeal is purely fun! And it’s not just because a bunch of celebrities participated in it (though surely that helped). The dousing invited creativity and the embrace of community. What creativity is involved in pouring cold water over your head? View one of the Ice Bucket Challenge clip rolls on YouTube and you’ll see.
For your cocktail shaker: Find a way for existing and potential donors to have fun while funding your cause!
Use Social Media the Way It’s Intended
Facebook enables ordinary people to share personal information with their friends, and often reconnect with old friends, by displaying their personal “stuff” on a public platform. The ice bucket challenge is successful across this and other channels because social media was designed specifically for sharing “stuff”. FB built its empire upon recordings of marriage proposals gone awry, cats purring, slips and falls at weddings, links to prescient articles etc. Posting a video of yourself while inverting a bucket of ice water over your head works on this medium. Contrast this with all of the things that don’t get good traction on FB – invitations to miscellaneous events, groups you don’t want to join, etc. and you get the sense that the latter items are all sales pitches as opposed to personal appeals to connect with someone. Social media is for socializing, not soliciting.
For your cocktail shaker: Build your campaign around the idea that friends invite and share information with other friends.
Identify a Meta-Message
“ALS is bad.” That’s all anyone needs to know when challenged by a friend to join the bucket brigade. When thinking about your organization, try to extract the overarching meta-message from your mission statement, making it as plain and easily transmittable as possible. The point is, identify something about your organization’s mission that everyone can agree with. “We make Jews” for day schools is a concentrated version of mission statements about “nurturing schools” that offer “differentiated instruction” in a “holistic Jewish environment.” Figure out what your meta-message is. Is it something that everyone can get on board with? If so, you’ve found your overarching theme to anchor your campaign.
For your cocktail shaker: Align your campaign to a potent meta-message.
Supporters Recruit Donors
I’m so-and-so and I challenge Ploni (my family member, friend, colleague, comrade-in-arms, celebrity crush) to do the ALS ice bucket challenge. It’s more meaningful if the invitation comes from someone you admire and respect. The bucket challenge went viral because each individual invited two or three people who were likely to take up the cause because they are familiar to each other and on the same “level”. I invited my daughter and two friends; Bill Gates challenged Elon Musk and Ryan Seacrest. Like all good fundraising, the best asks are peer-to-peer.
For your cocktail shaker: Design your campaign around the idea that friends recruit friends.
No Penalty for Not Donating
You can ignore your friend’s Facebook challenge altogether, but because of the social aspect (and all the previous bucket list items), I believe many, many people chose to douse themselves. And while many people contributed in support of the ALS Association, there are, I’m sure, people who used the dousing as an out to conserve their hard earned cash. And what do they get for not donating? They earn virtually the same “celebrity” as those who did donate (and douse). The dousers-not-donors help to advance the cause and are given credit for having done so. Further, there’s every reason to believe that dousers are more inclined to donate in the future because of their newly acquired familiarity, however superficial, with the nonprofit. There’s no downside to giving people a respectable out if they really don’t want to or cannot afford to make a contribution. Offer them an opportunity to be a friend of the organization.
For your cocktail shaker: Make friends, not enemies.
With a Twist
Good bartenders put a personal spin on each cocktail, mixing each to appeal to the culture of their club/clientele. The aforementioned six bucket list items, when combined in just the right proportions, will satisfy your community. Experiment with the mix – the result shouldn’t be shocking like a bucket of ice water over the head. Invite some of your trusted inner circle volunteers to a “tasting” of the mixes you’re considering, to fine tune the “taste.” Eventually you’ll develop a recipe that’s certain to make most people happy and keep them coming back for more.
Lev Herrnson has served the Jewish community for over 25 years in a variety of capacities, including teacher, rabbi and day school head. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.