Monday, November 3, 2014

Approaching The Ice Bucket Challenge

(From the Sept. 16, 2014 Non-Profit Roundtable)

This summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge took the country, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and the nonprofit world by storm. A recent YouTube search yielded 10.8 million results. Searching #IceBucketChallenge on Twitter is still yielding new responses and comments. According to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) Association website, the national organization has received $115 million in Ice Bucket Challenge donations from approximately 3 million donors, most of whom are new to the organization. This does not count those who made their donations to local chapters. To put that into perspective, the ALS Association’s annual budget is typically around $25 million per year of which only $8.4 million comes from individuals. That financial windfall of the challenge is more than 13 times the amount they normally receive.

Throughout the NonProfit community the whisperings of How can we do that? floated in the air, sometimes said aloud, and sometimes indicated that nonprofit leadership of a large number of organizations would do well to figure out a way to copy the success.

At the September NonProfit Roundtable, attendees studied the fundraising phenomenon and discussed if and how there were ways to create or support an atmosphere for any organization to pursue such a fundraiser. Basically, we addressed three questions related to the Ice Bucket Challenge: a) can you engineer a miracle; b) how to use social media to its utmost; and c) how does one manage the finances (and donors) of an unexpected windfall?

We first acknowledged that the ALS Association did NOT launch or design this campaign; it was started by the family of a former Division 1 baseball player, Pete Frates, who is living with ALS. They posted a video of Pete being doused with ice water and tagged his friends from college who are now professional baseball players. He challenged three friends to either dump a bucket of ice water over their heads or donate $100 to ALS causes, and then invite three of their own friends to do the same. The dumping and challenge should be filmed and posted on Facebook. This modest endeavor exploded with millions of participants, including young children, some of whom didn’t even know the underlying purpose of the acrtivity. Hundreds of celebrities also participated, several creating humorous or sexually charged variations. Along the way, others began to take the ice bucket challenge and donate. Thousands just donated. Links to the Association’s donation page flew from individual to indivudal, fast and furious, with reminders that this was a fundraiser. Again and again, those with knowledge or experience about ALS acted to remind participants and potential participants why the challenge was undertaken.

Guest speaker Rona Fernandez, a senior consultant of Klein & Roth Consulting ( reminded everyone that The Ice Bucket Challenge was NOT engineered by any nonprofit. In her estimation there were several reasons it was successful:
1.   The activity was easy and fun
2.   Participating made people feel like they are part of something bigger
3.   The Ask was very specific ($100 or the ice water)
4.   The challenge was Celebrity-driven with a lot of star power
5.   The activity was related to the ALS Association’s mission and connected directly to the disease (like a bucket of ice water, ALS freezes a person’s muscles)

Fernandez also shared some basic information on the status of fundraising responses, noting that studies are showing that response rates to Email solicitations are going down and simultaneously there is an indication that direct mail is making a come back. She also shared how important it is to use Social media as a true conversation. If an organization wants to know what its constitutents and supporters are thinking about, they should ask them.

Can You Engineer A Miracle?

The basic answer, of course, is no. But meeting attendees discussed why this particular challenge caught on:
1.   It was fun and a little humiliating (connecting to the current craze promoted by America’s Funniest Home Videos)
2.   People don’t want to be left out
3.   There is a peer pressure component, with friends challenging and then following up with friends
4.   There is pride in doing something safe but scary
5.   Calling it a “challenge” made the fundraiser competitive
6.   The activity was connected to ALS Association’s mission, values and brand
7.   Timing (dumping ice over one’s head seems possible on a hot summer day)
8.   The activity was authentic – a person just did it
9.   It was physical and appealed to men and women
10. The challenge connected deeply to the Internet culture

How to Use Social Media to Its Utmost

Roundtable meeting attendees recognized that there were many ways to inappropriately use social media in response to this highly successful fundraising event, such as posting negative or misleading videos, writing disparaging comments about the ALS Association, or asking social media contacts to not participate in the Challenge and give instead to their own organizations. There are also great ways to applaud and support the Ice Bucket Challenge while also bringing positive awareness to one’s own organization.

Âna-Marie Jones, Executive Director of CARD - Collaborating Agencies Responding to Disasters, and co-chair of the NonProfit Roundtable, led a conversation about how to connect  to the Ice Bucket Challenge in a positive way via social media. Some of the most appropriate ways include:
1.   Congratulate the ALS Association online from your social media pages
2.   Participate in the Challenge as staff or as a whole organization
3.   Share about why the Ice Bucket Challenge matters to your agency, especially how your agency serves or connects to people with ALS or the agencies that serve people with ALS
4.   Cheer on and post about your donors, staffers, volunteers, or constituents as they participate in the Challenge
5.   Repost specific videos that spark your interest
6.   Offer a space to do the Challenge

Social media platforms work best when they are used for active engagement. When millions of pro-social people are positively engaging in a conversation, it is likely a good conversation for your agency to engage in.

The Ice Bucket Challenge provided a great opportunity for nonprofits to flex their social media muscles, help bring awareness to a good cause, and practice the art of leveraging proactive, pro-social behavior on a large scale.

Financial Management of an Unexpected Windfall

An unanticipated windfall of such an enormous amount ($115 million) can play havoc with an organization or an individual. First, there is the processing and acknowledgment of the 3 million donations. What is the best way to acknowledge donations? Individually? As a group? Publicly? Personally? Then there is just what one organization can do with such a tremendous amount of unexpected and unbudgeted cash.

During the empowered introduction of the meeting, attendees shared what they would do if their organizations received an unexpected gift of $5 million. The answers were varied but fully within the scope and missions of the organizations represented. One organization seeking a new facility would put the money toward its capital campaign. Several would use a portion of the funds to strengthen programming. One would increase the number of constitutents it served. An  at-risk youth organization leader would create a college scholarship fund to pay for the education of its students. All agreed that some should be put away for longer term use and any immediate decision would come after a conscientious review of needs.

Barbara Newhouse, President and CEO of ALS FAssociation stated: “These funds will be used to fund cutting-edge research as well as care and support to people living with the disease. Now and in the coming weeks, we will be able to enhance our strategic plan, reformulating and recasting strategies with input from stakeholders, including our donors, our chapters, and most importantly, people living with ALS and their families. We want to move quickly but decisively as our ultimate goal is to use this incredible generosity in a way that has the biggest impact on fighting this disease.”

Similarly, management experts recommend taking time to create a strategic plan before rushing into spending or hiring, especially for groups that don't face an urgent time clock situation, as many disaster-relief agencies often do.

As for the immediate funds processing needs, the ALS Association relied on a handful of temps and a crew of volunteers from a senior center to help handle call volume and donations. The Association further created a special page on its web site and has made several public announcements and acknowledgments to the donors.

The Roundtable attendees agreed that there is no right way to respond, follow up or even ask again from this sort of fundraising phenomenon and exposure. As following the same practices that the organization has been following for years may not be of maximum benefit, the organization should develop ways to maintain ties with the donors.

Big thanks to Iryna Oreshkova of Iryna Accountancy ( for bringing treats.

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Co-Chair Âna-Marie Jones, Executive Director of CARD (AMJ
Co-Chair Jerry Metzker, Development & Communications Professional (

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