Ice Bucket Challenge Was a Hot Idea
Did you take the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Even if you didn’t, I’ll bet you at least talked about it.
Sure, the crazy-viral, social-media-based fundraiser has its critics. But come on! It was creative. It was fun. It was engaging. It was nothing short of a phenomenon! Wow!
Countless nonprofits use social media to create buzz. But when asked the tough question about how much money their social-media campaigns raised, they stare at their shoes and mumble about engaging younger audiences. The ice-bucket social-media campaign raised, at last count, $115 million and added more than 3 million new donors to the ALS Association’s file.
The funny thing, of course, is that the concept didn’t even start with ALSA. The true origins of the challenge and how it eventually became such a moneymaker for ALS and, specifically, ALSA are unclear, and you can find a number of stories that purport to be the real deal. (Check en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ice_Bucket_Challenge for some background.)
But still, once it started catching on, the success was a brilliant and all-too-rare combination of public relations and fundraising.
Let’s start with public relations. People can’t give to you if they don’t know you’re there, and people won’t give to you until they are persuaded of the importance of your work. PR’s job is to (a) build awareness of your organization and (b) position you as a valuable contributor to society — hence, worthy of support.
Most social-media campaigns do a great job of building awareness of a cause or an organization. In other words, they can be great PR. But let’s admit that they are rarely great fundraising.
Nonprofits need to stop telling us that if we like them on Facebook or click on a link, we’re helping cure a disease. We’re not. What helps cure a disease is if we donate money so they can fund life-saving research.
Successful public relations has to create an environment in which your fundraising works better.
The Ice Bucket Challenge got more people wondering about, learning about and talking about ALS than the ALS Association itself could ever have dreamt.
Better still, the “ask” was built right into the social-media campaign! Participants were challenged to either do the ice bucket part and make a $10 donation to ALS or forget the dousing and donate $100. Most included those stipulations in their subsequent challenges, as well as the ALSA website.
Sure, some of the people who took the challenge did it mostly for fun or to one-up their friends, but most made it clear that it takes more than awareness to tackle this — or any — disease.
It’s not enough to click “like” or to just be more socially conscious. Organizations need money. And this unofficial, grassroots campaign raised it. Buckets full of it.
To succeed, every nonprofit needs both great public relations and great fundraising.
PR alone builds awareness but doesn’t generate much-needed funds. Fundraising without PR leaves far too many people behind and dollars on the table because of the limited audience.
This is an inspiration to the rest of us to get our public relations and our fundraising experts talking to each other and working together to build awareness of our causes, position our organizations as the solutions and raise more money.
There might never be another Ice Bucket Challenge that was as successful as this one was for ALS research, education and support. Most likely, no one is going to create one to benefit your organization. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t make even your best campaigns go wildly viral.
But you can learn from this one. And when you can get great PR and great fundraising to work together, you never know what you might end up with — awareness, for sure, and maybe $115 million.
Tom Harrison is chair of Russ Reid and Omnicom's Nonprofit Group of Agencies. He is also chair of the FundRaising Success Editorial Advisory Board. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @THarrison53