Five Lessons Nonprofit Leaders can Draw from the Ice Bucket Challenge

The ALS Association was never a household name along the lines of, say, the March of Dimes or the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). To be sure, plenty of people knew about amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease) and its devastating effects on patients. And the recent film, “The Theory of Everything,” told the story of one longtime survivor, physicist Stephen Hawking.

The Ice Bucket Challenge was a phenomenal success for the ALS AssociationStill, in any given month the group raised approximately $300,000 in donations. That all changed with last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge, which quickly became an international sensation owing in large part to several early videos that went viral. All told, the challenge reportedly raised more than $100 million in the U.S. and $220 million worldwide.

Of course, some elements of the Ice Bucket Challenge’s success are the result of luck and chance — a novelty that caught on thanks to countless Facebook updates — but the program offers at least five key lessons to nonprofit leaders looking for ways to maximize the potential of their fundraising drives.

Timing is crucial

Although many charities have successfully planned events such as “polar plunges” during colder months, these events tend to have limited appeal. Conversely, staging the Ice Bucket Challenge during the summer ensured its success for one simple reason: People like events involving ice and water during the hot summer. Moreover, people as a rule enjoy being outdoors during the summer, and local Ice Bucket Challenge events gave people a reason to do so, while raising money in the process.

Fun is a requirement

Many organizations have a core of true believers who will show up for every event — even the solemn or downright boring ones. But to be truly successful, you’ll want to build mass appeal, and one way to do that is to promise the public a good time.

As last year’s series of Ice Bucket Challenge events demonstrated, old-fashioned fun outdoors will usually attract participants. Taking the concept one step further, the Ice Bucket Challenge dared participants to join in the fun.

On a more sober note, nonprofits often have serious, even solemn missions. ALS inflicts horrible pain on patients. Stephen Hawking’s case notwithstanding, the disease is usually fatal. Levity goes a long way to spread the word about a charity’s mission, research and the benefits derived from donations.

Exploit social media

If there were any social media skeptics in your organization prior to the Ice Bucket Challenge, its success should banish their doubts. It’s doubtful that a program like this would have caught on and spread as quickly without the help of people sharing on social media. Videos posted on Facebook, Twitter and other social platforms helped to push donations well past any early expectations of the ALS Association.

Social media also was important in another way: achieving results quickly. The Ice Bucket Challenge started to heat up in chilly New England after Pete Frates, former captain of the Boston College baseball team (and an ALS patient himself), posted his own ice-bucket video — which was among several that went viral. The summer gave Ice Bucket Challenge organizers a narrow window of success. Social media clearly worked wonders in making that happen.

Crib shamelessly

One rather odd secret about the Ice Bucket Challenge is that it did not start out as an ALS-focused effort. It took a team of dedicated ALS volunteers throughout the U.S. to make the Ice Bucket Challenge their group’s signature fundraiser for the summer of 2014.

As a concept, the Ice Bucket Challenge is quite simple and easy to adapt to any group’s fundraising needs or message. From a logistical perspective, it and similar events are also relatively easy to plan and to implement.

It’s good to be simple and straightforward

We’ve all been there: At a fundraising banquet or “thank you” affair, the litany of praise heaped on organizational VIPs and volunteers can often seem endless. Then, when the honoree finally gets to the podium, he or she often creates another list of Oscar nominees as a way to deflect that praise.

While nobody would begrudge someone time in the spotlight, events such as the Ice Bucket Challenge were remarkable for their simplicity, flat organizational structure and lack of ownership or sense of “turf.” People became too busy having a great time — and the project as a whole was more successful because of that.

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