Lessons For Nonprofits

Recreating The Ice Bucket Challenge

By Jessy Smulski | Jan 18, 2018

I like to compare the ice bucket challenge to a snowflake. By design, it was the perfect genesis of elements. But there was no master artisan behind its formation; no marketing team devising the strategy behind its success. The ice bucket challenge happened organically. However, just because it wasn’t deliberately created, doesn’t mean it can’t be recreated…

The Cause

It all began with a mission; to raise awareness and research funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. ALS is a progressive disease that affects the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Eventually, the disease takes away the brain’s ability to initiate and control muscle movements and leads to death in 100% of patients.

There is some debate over where and with whom this challenge started. Some accredit Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player who suffers critically from the disease. Others believe it was Chris Kennedy, a Florida golfer who may have been the first one to tie the ice bucket challenge to ALS.

The Challenge

Step 1: Get nominated by someone to participate in the challenge. You can’t just do the ice bucket challenge. That would be lame. You have to be challenged by someone.

Step 2: You have 24 hours to complete the challenge. If you refuse the challenge, you’re a jerk who loves Lou Gehrig’s Disease. If you rise to the occasion, you have two options…

Step 3: Donate $100 for ALS research OR video yourself dumping ice cold water on your head in exchange for a ‘thumbs up’ to donate any amount.

Step 4: Make a Facebook post about your donation, or post the video of your ‘ice bucket dump’.

Step 5: Challenge 3 people to do the same.


The Facts

The challenge kicked off sometime in July 2014. In just one month, a few mind-blowing things happened:

  • Over 1.2 million people created unique videos of themselves taking the icy plunge.
  • The ALS Association (ALSA) reported collecting $13.3 million in donations compared to $1.7 million during the same period a year prior.
  • That August, online searches for ‘ALS’ skyrocketed from 500 to 68,000.

Fun fact: Globally, people dumped enough water on their heads to fill approximately four Olympic-size swimming pools. That’s about 2,641,720 gallons! (sorry Charity: Water, we had the best of intentions).

To date, more than 17 million ice bucket challenge videos have been uploaded to Facebook, and over $115 million has been raised. Just one year prior to this viral campaign, ALSA donations topped out at $23.5 million. Since 2014, the cash-flow has been put to good use. In fact, John Hopkins University identified a protein that consistently fails in most ALS patients. Through research, they discovered a way to repair the protein and heal cell damage.


How To Create A Viral Nonprofit Donation Campaign

Step 1: Tap Into Primal Wiring

Despite how domesticated we’ve become, human behavior is still largely influenced by primal wiring. For example, we inherently want to belong to a group. This desire dates back to our tribal roots and the ideology of ‘safety in numbers’. To belong was to survive.

The ice bucket challenge triggered this want by incorporating the “nomination” component into the game. When the challenge grew into a national phenomenon, picking up celebrities, major media outlets, and even the POTUS, it became history in the making. It was inclusive enough that most people eventually got called on but exclusive enough to promote a healthy dose of FOMO (fear of missing out).

Watching someone perform a selfless act also evokes empathy, which creates a physiological urge to act similarly. It was humbling to watch friends, family, and complete strangers participate in and share a vulnerable and, frankly, uncomfortable act of kindness.

Step 2: Create a Sense of Urgency

The ice bucket challenge set a fast pace for progress by requesting that participants complete the challenge, share it with their social networks, and pass the philanthropy along to someone else within 24 hours. This sense of urgency had everything to do with the success this challenge achieved in only one month.

Step 3: Provide Clear and Simple Calls to Action

The ice bucket challenge was simple and direct. You’ve been nominated for a good cause. Pony up or take the plunge. Nominate someone else — period. The simpler and more direct the request, the greater and faster the response.

Step 4: Incorporate Social Recognition

Don’t deny it...we all like to be recognized for doing something nice. Asking people to essentially brag on Facebook about their charitable donation evoked what is known as “the audience effect” or “social facilitation”. Put simply; it’s when a desired behavior (in this case, participating in the challenge) becomes more likely to occur because of the presence of observers. Absent of all those videos, the ice bucket challenge wouldn’t have been nearly as powerful.

Step 5: Perpetuate Support

The ice bucket challenge maintained its momentum by requiring participants to recruit more people. Don’t think pyramid scheme. Think social encouragement. We are far more likely to follow through with a request made by a friend or family member than an organization.


Three Valuable Tips To Increase Donations

Be Prepared
Make sure your website design has the infrastructure required to support your success, including your online donation process. If ALSA’s website design had been subpar, it would have crashed under the pressure of millions of visitors and donations. Likewise, if the donation process were long and confusing, the challenge would have lost contributors who didn’t have the patience to see their act of kindness through.

Here’s an example of what a successful nonprofit website and donation process looks like and how a website overhaul delivered measurable results:

Multiple Sclerosis Foundation
Case Study

Have Fun
Charities typically surround tough or serious subjects. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have fun and encourage supporters to be silly. Emotionally impactful campaigns certainly have their place. But it’s also wise to create feel-good experiences for donors that inspire them to share with others and reflect positively on the act of giving.

Encourage User-Generated Content
User-generated content is crazy powerful. Bring your donors deeper into the effort. Take them beyond a single donation by asking them to participate and recruit in ways that are simple and rewarding. This is how nonprofits convert people into advocates.



Stay ahead of online fundraising trends

The Author

Jessy Smulski

Jessy turns industry shop-talk into simple, insightful, humanized conversation. Often described as bold, empathetic, and charmingly sarcastic; her writing style reflects her personality and reads like a friend telling stories over supper. When she isn’t writing, you can find Jessy backpacking the midwest, snowboarding the rockies, or capturing life through the lens of her camera.