Ice Bucket Fundraising: The Good, The Bad and the Viral Sublime.


Raising funds is an extraordinarily difficult task and there are no guaranteed shortcuts to catching the imagination of the public. Ours is a crowded field with a great many worth causes, smart non-profit leaders and a wary public. Case development, linkage to prospects, cultivation, solicitation and stewardship are not easy for any of us and someone who tells you otherwise has something to sell you

A truly viral fundraiser is an exceptional rarity, that moment that publicity, interest, energy all align perfectly and the fundraising rocket ship launches. The phone rings, the mail is full, and you cannot acknowledge the cash fast enough.

So what then to make of this amazing ALS Ice Bucket business, the $ raised and the awareness gained? This is neither the best or worst thing that ever happened to philanthropy.

Read Facebook, twitter, HuffPo and the like and two trends emerge, that this is either the death of giving due to slacktivism (a precious term, wish I’d had coined it) or the Great Philanthropic Awakening of 2014.

It is neither of these things, but let’s start with the negative, best summed up by this fellow’s sobering analysis that philanthropic gifts made to ALS because of the Challenge are made at the expense of other charities.

I reject this argument entirely. Philanthropy is about 5% of GDP in the United States, a percentage that hasn’t changed in decades (though has, barely, kept up inflation and growth) and so this notion that a limited pool of potential funds exists for philanthropy is foolhardy. The philanthropic community must reject this notion of scarcity, that $1 for me is $1 less for you.

I see this argued all the time, particularly to question arts and cultural funding. A well-known financial blogger (who I admire) repeatedly argues that investment to basic human services (serving the homeless and so forth) is more worthy than other sorts of non-profits. Nonsense. There are many human needs, and most organizations are worthy of support. Creative fundraising has a place to grow the overall pie in Philanthropy, and goodness knows we need engaged supporters. So make a video and send in your check. Fun.

$50million (or $100million or $31.5million, all claimed in online articles I read) to ALS Association is not at the expense of other philanthropy and will help, in a small way, to grow the giving pie in 2014. Terrific.

So what of this notion that Philanthropic Giving is forever altered by the spectacle of James Franco having cold water poured on his head? This article sums up best the dubious conclusion that all of this is anything but an internet sensation and a short-term wonder, similar to Lil Bub the Cat, that YouTube kid who got bit by Charlie, and countless others.

Is ALS a worthy issue for philanthropy? Of course. Is it the best, and worthy of all of this attention? I don’t know. Probably not. There are a great many worthy charities, but of course this wasn’t a consideration when the Ice Buckets starting going viral. What was? It was a clever effort of course, and fun to watch friends, strangers and models in bikinis dump ice water on themselves,. We all love the football, and a great American moment every year is watching the winning team douse their coaching with icy water as the seconds tick away. Who wouldn’t want to create that pure Joy for themselves and have their friends click the like button?

But is it replicable? No. Viral Campaigns cannot be predicted or controlled and this one will never be what it was after the novelty passes. So what do you do when your board member proposes some similar shenanigan? Tell him we can launch it in the closing weeks of the annual fund, after we are at 90% of the goal. That’s the perfect time for a Gadget Fundraiser. Stick to your fundamentals until then – case, linkage, cultivation. Get me on the phone and I will tell him that for you.

Will I donate to this? Probably not. I don’t understand disease related fundraising – too often the activity has nothing to do with the Cause and I learn nothing about kidney disease by running in the 5k and collecting my t-shirt. I do believe that all us should be careful in our giving to new organizations as they will (and must) devote resources to renewing our support and that if we truly aren’t interested we will waste time and money.

I challenge the ALS Association to find impactful ways to capitalize on this viral moment by pledging new research efforts and educating all of its new donors on the vital work to eradicate a monstrous disease. That will pay off better in the long run than the next clever notion for everyone to film themselves holding their breath for charity.

About jeremymhatch

If I could, I'd write about nothing but tacos. Alas, I am fundraising and leadership consultant in the arts, focusing on contributed revenue growth for organizations. Send me a compliment or complaint. And the location for the good tacos in your town.
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