Deep thoughts on the ice bucket fundraising challenge

Since a twitter chat at #fundchat, I’ve been having deep thoughts on the ice bucket fundraising challenge.

1. Are they really “new donors” or just leads?

ice bucketWith the fundraising world now rightly focused on retention, the big question on the Twitter chat was how will the ALS Association keep these donors.

I think it might be a mistake to jump all the way to assuming that these 1.9 million new donors (as of Aug 26, 2014) are really donors yet. With new donor dropout rates in the 70-80%s, there’s already an axiom in the fundraising world that your donor isn’t really your donor until they’ve made a 2nd gift. And that’s for people who on their own initiative responded to a direct mail appeal or TV ad.

But these “donors” are responding to a peer ask,  like a walk-a-thon giver. The emotional connection is to the asker  not the cause.

If I were the ALS Association I’d be doing two things. First, I’d want an engaging and heartfelt thank you that responds to the ice bucket challenge itself. Second, I’d be working on a special appeal, more akin to an acquisition or even a welcome package, that really starts from scratch making its case.

And I’d be doing my math as if this was another new list I was recruiting from.

2. How will the ALS Association use this dramatic increase in donations? And how will they communicate what they will do?

From their press release: As of Tuesday, August 26, The ALS Association has received $88.5 million in donations compared to $2.6 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 26).”

In my review of their 990 data, this isn’t only more than they received in the same period, it’s more than they have received for the full year, counting their chapters.

On its 2013 990, the national organization reported $19.7 million in revenues. The Annual Report for 2012 in Guidestar was close to that same figure and indicated that this was not combined reporting with its affiliate chapters, of which there are 38 listed on their website. Quickly calculating the amount reported by the affiliates, and reducing the national headquarters total by the rough amount received from the affiliates, the combined revenues are around $53.7 million. So they are already $35 million ahead of last year. And the challenge hasn’t stopped and is likely to keep going for a while.  Who knows how much it will raise? Trust

I’m reminded of the fundraising for the 2004 South Asian tsunami. Doctors without Borders/ MSF made the bold move to explain to its donors that it had reached the maximum it could use in tsunami relief. It asked donors instead to contribute to its general emergency relief fund for other needs. The organization was lauded for its extreme honesty.

While I’m sure there are many ALS researchers who could put that money to good use, it wouldn’t be prudent to just dump that funding out the door. I wonder if even a small portion of that funding were reinvested in major gift and planned giving fundraisers what impact it would have on ALS revenues for the long term? But that would take a lot of explaining to do.

I hope that the ALS Association and its chapters have a great strategic plan and a soon to be communicated response to the public on how all of these donations will be used — before the reporters come sniffing around next year to see how the money was spent.

3. The ice bucket challenge is a great example of the power of social proof or social influence.

We’ve written about the power of social influence in fundraising before. See If donors knew what others were giving would they give more?

It’s hard to imagine how there could be any more social influence in this challenge? Your friends and family call you out on Facebook to participate. They give themselves. There’s even a dollar amount as a benchmark. Lots of people you know are doing it. Even celebrities. And once it became a phenomenon, failing to participate makes you look like a slacker, rather than being part of the in-crowd.

White water rafting4. The challenge is important in motivating peer to peer fundraising.

When I look at the really high value peer to peer fundraisers, there seems to consistently be a personal challenge.

Maybe this doesn’t compare to cycling 200 miles or running a marathon, but if people were just dumping a bucket of warm water on their heads, would his have caught on?

5. Peer to peer fundraising stewardship needs to keep an eye on the solicitors.

I’m reminded of an organization I know that stopped doing a walk because it had gotten so incredibly labor intensive for the return on investment given other fundraising strategies. So they sent out an letter letting people know they weren’t continuing.

But what about all of those team captains and high level fundraisers who had been raising a few thousand dollars each year for the organization? These were clearly individuals who were highly motivated by the cause. Yet they were casually dismissed as well in the blanket termination letter.

While our organizations turn their attention to trying to get all those pledgers to give again, I just wonder how much stewardship attention they are paying to the people who are out there asking for the donations on their behalf.

Okay,  I think I’ve reached my one day limit on deep thoughts on the ice bucket fundraising challenge.

Any deep thoughts you want to share?

4 responses to Deep thoughts on the ice bucket fundraising challenge

  1. Anne Landis

    I was confused by the appeal–does doing the ice bucket challenge mean that you are also donating, or does not accepting the challenge mean that you must donate? Since my mother has ALS, I’m a bit sensitive…and no one has challenged me! Through all the challenge videos, I rarely see a link to the ALS Association…There are many different things that the ALS Association does!

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      What a nice surprise to see you here.
      At this point, people are donating and not donating as they wish. At the start, the idea was that if you didn’t take the challenge you had to donate, but that doesn’t seem to matter much anymore.
      One reason that there is not necessarily a link to the ALS Association is that this wasn’t something they started or control. It’s completely grassroots driven. My guess is that they have been running to catch up.
      There were many ice bucket challenges for many different organizations before this one caught on for just the ALS Association. An interesting question might be what made it stick for ALS. Clearly Peter Frates and likely the strength of his connections likely had something to do with it.

  2. Anthony DiPietro

    My not so deep thoughts: I have been saying for many years that nonprofits haven’t yet figured out how to use social media for fundraising–not really. There have been isolated examples, but this one has been so widespread, and so ingeniously leverages people’s natural motivations for giving, that it might represent a sort of tipping point where we’ll start to see many more nonprofits create smart, innovative, fun campaigns–ones that really have an impact on organizations with worthy programs. At least, I hope that’s what happens. (As long as we’re not eventually “flooded” to a degree that every campaign becomes “watered down” and every news feed “flush” with fundraising challenges.)

    • Gayle Gifford Post Author

      Thanks, Anthony.
      I do think it would be great to bring more fun back into FUNdraising!
      It will be hard to repeat this one though. Especially given that ALSA didn’t create the campaign.
      But there certainly are enough creative minds out there.
      The amount is huge — more than double now their annual revenues — that dealing with the challenge of such a huge amount of money requires strong planning and will take amazing communications skills to persuade a skeptical public that is expecting all that money to go directly to research – today.

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