The Ice Bucket Challenge Was Not Peer-to-Peer Fundraising
The beloved (Otis Fulton, my husband and Turnkey’s psychologist) leapt from his chair with a shocked expression on his face and social science book-of-the-day in hand. He said, “The Ice Bucket Challenge was not peer-to-peer fundraising!”
Like a cow, I chewed the bland cud of my oatmeal and blankly stared back at him.
“Don’t you see?” he said. “Peer-to-peer is a closed loop. The Ice Bucket Challenge was an open loop.”
I added milk, sugar, too—these things being important to healthy food. I did not “see.” More, it was Saturday morning and, at that moment, I didn’t care. But, he was excited. Watching Otis, the 6’10” behemoth of a man, get excited as if he just got his first Happy Meal is a sight, so I listened.
To get anyone living in the back of their cars without Internet access up to speed, the Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC) went viral on social media during July and August 2014. As even my Donald Trump-loving family knows (I will not hyperlink that man), the IBC encouraged nominated participants to be filmed as a bucket of ice water was poured on their heads, then nominating others to do the same. A common stipulation was that nominated participants had 24 hours to comply or else forfeit by way of a donation to ALS.
In terms of stimulating participation, the IBC was considered by many to be the single most successful charity “event” ever. In 2014, it yielded more than 2.4 million tagged videos circulating Facebook and resulted in $115 million raised for ALS.
After IBC, many chief development officers began to dread board-meeting days. They knew what those board members wanted—their own flavor of the IBC. Invariably, boards pushed the chief development officer to make it happen, and the chief development officer turned to the most likely in-house candidate: the peer-to-peer fundraising director. IBC envy rolls downhill.
But, Otis said, the peer-to-peer director likely was not the right person to pressure, because the IBC wasn’t a peer-to-peer campaign, at least not in the way that peer-to-peer typically is defined.
“The big difference between the IBC and a traditional peer-to-peer campaign is that the latter is a closed system,” Otis explained. “By this I mean the size of a peer-to-peer campaign is limited by the number of fundraisers—event participants—who are recruited. Participants reach out (privately) to their peer networks to solicit support, their peers do or don’t donate money, and the loop terminates. The people who are solicited for a donation in large percentage do nothing more than donate.
“In contrast, the IBC was an open system,” Otis continued. “An individual commits to participate, dumps ice water on themselves, and publicly nominates three peers who then do/don’t participate. Those who do participate start the cycle all over again.”
So it’s like a baseball game, which George Carlin famously quipped theoretically might never end.
“So if not a peer-to-peer campaign, then just what was the IBC?” I asked Otis.
“Those of us who are familiar with Derek Sivers’ wonderful 2010 TED Talk will recognize that the IBC was a movement.”
He continued, “The nuggets of wisdom that Sivers discloses about movements include:
- The leader embraces the first follower as an equal.
- The activity must be public.
- New followers emulate the followers, not the leader.
- As more people join in, it's less socially risky to participate until it becomes more socially risky not to participate.
- Eventually there is a tipping point—and you have a movement.
“The IBC included some elements of peer-to-peer, but structurally it was always a different animal,” Otis concluded. “Peer-to-peer has clear leaders; IBC is leaderless. It was a movement.”
The conversation made me think. If we stop trying to shove this new and interesting beast into the departments that have lived on our organizational charts forever, we might just figure this thing out, and be able to duplicate it.
That’s where Turnkey is going—off road.
He went back to his book, pleased; I added butter to my oatmeal.
Otis spent most of his career in the education industry, working at the psychometric research and development firm MetaMetrics Inc., Pearson Education and others. Since 2013, he has focused on the nonprofit sector, applying psychology to fundraising and donor behavior at Turnkey. He is the co-author of the 2017 book, ”Dollar Dash: The Behavioral Economics of Peer-to-Peer Fundraising” and is a frequent speaker at national nonprofit conferences. With Katrina VanHuss, he co-authors a blog at NonProfit PRO, “Peeling the Onion,” on the intersection of psychology and philanthropy.
Otis is a much-sought-after copywriter for nonprofit fundraising messages. He has written campaigns for UNICEF, St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital, March of Dimes, Susan G. Komen, the USO and dozens of other organizations. He has a Ph.D. in social psychology from Virginia Commonwealth University and a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Virginia, where he also played on UVA’s first ACC champion basketball team.
Katrina VanHuss has helped national nonprofits raise funds and friends since 1989 when she founded Turnkey. Her client’s successes and her dedication to research have made her a sought-after speaker, presenting at national conferences for Blackbaud, Peer to Peer Professional Forum, Nonprofit PRO, The Need Help Foundation and her clients’ national meetings. The firm’s work is underpinned by the study and application of behavioral economics and social psychology. Turnkey provides project engagements, coaching, counsel and staffing to nonprofits seeking to improve revenue or create new revenue. Her work extends into organizational alignment efforts and executive coaching.
Katrina also regularly shares her wit and business experiences on her and Otis Fulton's NonProfit PRO blog “Peeling the Onion.” When not writing or researching, Katrina likes to make things — furniture from reclaimed wood, new gardens, food with no recipe. Katrina’s favorite Saturday is spent cleaning out the garage, mowing the grass, making something new, all while listening to loud music by now-deceased black women, throwing in a few sets on the weight bench off and on, then collapsing on the couch with her husband Otis to gang-watch new Netflix series whilst drinking sauvignon blanc.
Katrina grew up on a Virginia beef cattle and tobacco farm with her three brothers. She is accordingly skilled in hand to hand combat and witty repartee — skills gained at the expense of her brothers. Katrina’s claim to fame is having made it to the “American Gladiator” Richmond competition as a finalist in her late 20s, progressing in the competition until a strangely large blonde woman knocked her off a pedestal with an oversized pain-inducing Q-tip. Katrina’s mantra for life is “Be nice. Do good. Embrace embarrassment.” Clearly she’s got No. 3 down.