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From Ice Buckets to Polar Dips: Making Your Fundraising Go Viral

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[Editor's Note: This is a guest post from a reader who goes by Tanya O. I had thought about not publishing an article about ice bucket challenge since it gets so much media coverage already. I changed my tune after seeing a commercial last night about the dangers of the "fire challenge" where (mostly) teenagers dangerously and stupidly set themselves on fire for no reason other than to try to get YouTube views. To quote the immortal Jayne Cobb, "Where's that get fun?"

So in stark contrast to that, I figure why not post about the ice bucket challenge, that when done correctly is relatively safe and has lead to significant charity contributions.]

By now, you’ve probably seen at least one person on your social media feed — or seen someone on national television — dumping a bucket of ice over his or her own head in the name of charity. The ALS Challenge, started by a Massachusetts family who wanted to raise money and awareness for the disease more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, asks people to challenge their friends to either film themselves dumping a large bucket of ice water over their heads or donate $100 to ALS research.

Some naysayers question the value of such a “challenge,” arguing that the results are short term and that the real beneficiaries in the challenge are the companies selling ice, but in reality, it’s working: major ALS research and support organizations are reporting a huge surge in donations. The ALS Association usually raises about $22,000 in July — this year, the organization reports bringing in about $1.35 million. Other organizations, like Project ALS and the ALS Therapy Development Institute, report as many as 50 times more online donations than usual because of the campaign.

So what is it that has made the Ice Bucket Challenge so successful? ALS is certainly a worthy cause, but it’s more than just the cause that makes a fundraising campaign go viral — and this particular campaign has hit all the marks.

Viral Fundraising: The Trend of Our Times?

Ask any marketer, and he or she will tell you that going viral is often the ultimate goal of their campaigns, whether they are raising money for a cause or selling tuna fish. When your video, photo or blog post goes viral, the potential audience increases exponentially.

However, a lot of viral content doesn’t maintain that momentum for longer than a few days. As a fundraiser, a few days of increased donations are great, but as the Ice Bucket Challenge shows, a few weeks are even better. So what has this campaign done right?

The challenge made a reasonable donation request. Asking people to donate thousands of dollars to a cause is unreasonable. Asking people to donate $100, or less, is. Many people who complete the Ice Bucket Challenge also donate to the cause.

The challenge took advantage of the need to be “seen.” Another reason for the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge is that it taps into the very heart of why people use social media: they want to show off to their friends, especially when they are doing something altruistic or “good.” How better to do that than asking people to actually post videos of themselves in action?

Campaigns that go viral give people a chance to show off, for better or worse. That means that you have to encourage donors to share their act, whether it’s a silly act like pouring ice water their heads, or saying goodbye to their old boat when they donate the vessel to charity.

The challenge was crafted to appeal to social networks. Again, social media is, well, social. Each person who supports your cause has a network of hundreds or thousands of other people who could be potential supporters. The Ice Bucket Challenge has succeeded because it requires participants to call out specific people in their network (most nominate three to five others) to complete the challenge or donate. Not only does this spread the message far and wide — and guarantee that most people will see at least half a dozen of their friends completing the challenge — but it raises the social stakes. No one wants to be the person who ignored the challenge, so they participate in some way.

The challenge is unique. Let’s face it: The Ice Bucket Challenge itself is silly. And it really has nothing to do with ALS. But it gets attention, because it’s human nature to want to see others in uncomfortable or incongruous situations. Many organizations have been successful by tapping into emotions, but it’s rare that something serious and heartfelt goes viral. If your organization can find something funny, that isn’t dangerous and gets attention, then you have a better chance of going viral.

The challenge is simple. Not only is the Ice Bucket Challenge itself easy to do, but the message is simple: Do this, or donate to the cause. There’s no complicated back-story, no scripted pitch — just regular people asking others to help. When people decide to donate, they should be able to easily find information about your organization and your mission, but if you want to go viral, keep it simple.

In the coming months, many organizations will try to recreate the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge. If yours is one of them, keep the principles of an effective viral campaign in mind, and you may just find yourself the next viral fundraising sensation.

Last updated on August 23, 2014.

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2 Responses to “From Ice Buckets to Polar Dips: Making Your Fundraising Go Viral”

  1. Alexis says:

    I love how the internet and social media can bring so much awareness to a disease that we know nothing about. I read that last year only about 2 milion dollars was raised, and this year it’s over 50-60 million already!

  2. Robyn Weinbaum says:

    call me cynical. i fund raise every year. donations shrink, disappear. it is hard to get $10, even when i tell people i participate in a matching program that will double their donation. i’ve seen other charities ‘go begging’ this year because ALS has diverted funds from their campaigns. not necessarily a bad thing, but not necessarily a good thing either. is this a great example of the power of social media? absolutely. ps: no one has challenged me. if they did, i’d tell them to take a hike, i already donate 10-12% of my income to a variety of causes.

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