This story was updated on Aug. 21 at 12:31 p.m.
Unless you have been holed up in a cabin without wifi for the past couple of weeks, you have likely heard about the #IceBucketChallenge, a social media campaign in support of ALS (also known as Lou Gherig’s Disease) charities.
The idea is simple: dump a bucket of cold ice water on your head, post a video of yourself doing it to social media, challenge three of your closest friends or colleagues to do likewise or fork over a donation to the ALS charity of their choice.
The idea was launched by Pete Frates, a former captain of the Boston College baseball team who suffers from ALS. In late July, he put the challenge out there to a number of sports figures in the Boston area and the idea took off.
The campaign continues to inspire some of the biggest names in business, sports and Hollywood to take part with their own daring versions, including; Microsoft founder Bill Gates, NBA superstar Lebron James, Elon Musk and Oprah Winfrey. There are many outlandish versions, including NHL player Paul Bissonette version where he hired a helicopter to douse himself with glacier water while wearing a Speedo.
The star power has triggered a viral sensation. The term “Ice Bucket Challenge” was mentioned 2.2 million times on Twitter between June 1 and August 13 and, according to Facebook, videos of the trend have reached 1.2 million.
Most importantly, as of Wednesday, the ALS Association in the U.S. reported “as of Thursday, August 21, the ALS Association has received $41.8 million in donations compared to $2.1 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 21). These donations have come from existing donors and 739,275 new donors to The Association.”
So how can there be naysayers you ask? The arguments against goes like this:
It’s a gimmick. It does nothing to raise real awareness of the disease and is way too silly and flippant for such a serious issue. The critics also contend that it gives permission to people to misbehave.
It fuels slacktivists. It is simply a stunt for people who are not connected and engaged to the issue to feel good about themselves and avoid giving money.
Give silently. Rather than being self-promotional and calling out how virtuous you are, better to simply write a cheque and do the right thing in the right way.
It takes money away from other charities. Because of all the attention the campaign is generating, many other charities will now be missing out because people only have so much money to give.
To all the critics out there I say this: time to get in on the action and cool off. The criticisms are not warranted for the following reasons:
Gimmicks are a way to engage people in fun. Who says positive social actions must be serious? Movember is successful because of the fun associated with growing a mustache. Volkswagen designed a whole initiative around the fun theory and guess what? People recycled and took the stairs instead of escalatorse because they made it fun. We used fun to entice college-aged students to lower their thermostats by wearing ugly sweaters and getting into keg parties (WWF’s National Sweater Day) and it worked in spades. Gimmicks may not assuage the serious soul looking for deep meaning, but for the everyday person that doesn’t normally engage with your cause, it works.
Simple works. You can call it slacktivism but the reality is that if you want to engage people who are not your existing supporters you have to make the ask simple and compelling. The Ice Bucket Challenge is dead simple and people have responded to it. Is it so bad if they feel good doing something positive?
Sharing is vital to the success of a fundraising campaign. If a person takes an action and it stops there, success will be limited. It is vital to think about what you want to share and why people will do it. The visual element of the #IceBucketChallenge combined with calling out three friends builds the share right into the story. That was a big part of its success, combined with the fact that celebrities grabbed hold of it in a big way.
Impact is critical. But it is ridiculous to judge the campaign on the premise that there are more deserving causes and charities. That is for people to decide on an individual basis. The initiative started from a very authentic place – the drive of a person living with ALS who wanted to do something to help others.
The argument that one’s charity’s success cannibalizes another’s is old school thinking. It is premised on the notion that the pie is only so big and if I win, you lose. But the evidence suggests that great, fun, simple and engaging ideas win and that there is money – new money – from individuals, companies, foundations and governments to invest in for ideas that capture people’s imagination.
No one could have predicted the success of this campaign. So while there are elements in it that can be replicated, the idea on its own is not easily copied. Simply put, this is not an idea on paper that would generate huge excitement in boardrooms of most charitable organizations. And yet in practice it worked.
So my suggestion to ALS charities is to treat this as a major gift from the money gods and do the following:
Invest in innovation
Take a portion of the dollars and start developing and prototyping new fundraising campaigns that can help get you a little closer to finding a cure for ALS. Most non-profits don’t have innovation budgets and it is a huge mistake. Innovation can only happen if the organization is willing to take risks. ALS charities just received a huge amount of risk capital. It would be a shame not to use it.
Quickly figure out how to spend the money
It is very important that ALS charities communicate what they plan on doing with the money and why. It will help to build a deeper relationship with new donors and extend the power of the story.
Keep the story and engagement going
ALS charities do not want this to become a passing fad. Engaging all the people who took part (maybe through celebrities) to ask if they would be interested in following the progress of the money raised will help to build bonds and increase their visibility.
Maybe if they do these things, the naysayers may just come along for the ride. Who says a cold bucket of water can’t feel good?
Phillip Haid is the co-founder and CEO of Public, a cause marketing agency and innovation lab designed to create large-scale social impact through the merger of profit and purpose.
UPDATE: The total donation figures were updated by the ALSA after this column was originally published. The column has been changed to reflect the new figures.