Ice Bucket Challenge: Can Other Nonprofits Reproduce It? | Beth's Blog

Ice Bucket Challenge: Can Other Nonprofits Reproduce It?


Is success of the Ice Bucket Challenge a happy accident for ALS  and the people who suffer from the disease or is the first example of the power of crowd charity?    Can other nonprofits reproduce it?   My answer: yes and no.

The Ice Bucket  Challenge has raised over $88.5 Million Dollars to fight the horrible disease, according to the ALS Association web site.    Just one week ago, donations totaled $22.6 million.  In just seven days, donations have skyrocketed by an average of $9 million per day, now totaling $88.5 million.    And critics, with a scarcity mindset, talk about slacktivism (“Not everyone who did the challenge donated or even mentioned ALS”) and fundraising cannibalism (“People won’t donate to other charities because they will be tapped out”).  Nonprofit insiders are watching and debating how ALS will use the money and the donor retention strategy.    And, of course the valid concern of wasting water in a drought.

One has to step back and marvel at  the most successful networked fundraising campaigns in the history of social or crowd fundraising.  The numbers speak for themselves.

When  Allison Fine and I wrote the Networked Nonprofit we were talking about how nonprofits needed to work less like isolated institutions and more like networks, considering the “crowds,”  people inside and outside their organizations and other similar nonprofits as valuable to their work.     We are in the collaborative economy or sharing economy – and we now have “crowd companies.”   Why not “crowd nonprofits” that share program delivery, administration, and fundraising. The question on my mind is:  Is the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge a happy accident for ALS fundraising and the people who suffer from the disease or is the first example of the power of crowd charity?

Let’s look at the possible factors that caused philanthropy to run wild and capture the attention of so many people, inspire them to participate, and donate to stop the disease.  What can or cannot be reproduced?

(1) Downer News Cycle: Last week, in an interview with NPR, I pointed to the long cycle of bad news we had experienced over the summer as one possible reason the Ice Bucket Challenge had so much appeal.   In deck above, you will see a graph that shows that the Ice Bucket Challenge had more search volume than other news such as Ferguson and Iraq during the last few weeks.      This shows the importance of timing and playing off current events. It goes beyond what is  known as “newsjacking,” to analyze public reaction and also have the agility to strike while the iron is hot.

(2) Playing on Memes: The campaign took advantage of social media narcissism for a good cause.  But unlike other campaigns where the idea to incorporate a meme was part of a campaign organized by an organization or central entity (for example, Giving Tuesday’s “UnSelfie Campaign“), the fundraiser itself was a meme that went viral, not only as a fundraiser, but its own Internet meme (see this Star Wars version and others).  The ice bucket challenge has been going on for a while now among golfers and many others donating to the charity of their choice but did not really spread until Pete Frates, the former captain of Boston College’s baseball team, re-purposed the meme by challenging Steve Gleason to throw a bucket of ice over his head to raise awareness for ALS. (You can see how it spread from Massachusetts to the rest of the country via this Facebook data)

(3) Influencers: Pete Frates was one of the early “influencers” or what Allison Fine and called “Free Agents,”  people who have large and passionate networks that they can leverage for a good cause.  But he had help from another free agent, Corey Griffen, a management consultant who organized the fundraiser.   Sadly, Griffen, died in a drowning accident on August 16th.  Reaching out to and cultivating people with large networks who are passionate about your cause is something your nonprofit can reproduce and should do.      But the fundraiser meme went beyond the sports world, when hundreds of celebrities (or their PR agents) picked up on the idea.   Celebrities and fundraisers are nothing new and even having a critical mass of celebrities join forces for a good cause is not new (think Bob Geldof and LiveAid).   But, there was not a central coordinating organization or purpose for this celebrity participation, it was self-organizing.  So, just because your nonprofit may get one celebrity to join your fundraiser, it won’t create a cascade of sand of others joining in without even being asked.

(4)  PhilanthroKids and Philanthropy Education: We are seeing the rise of PhilanthroKids, as GenZ starts to use the technologies for good causes.    As more kids are heading back to school,  teachers and whole schools are embracing the challenge and teaching some important lessons about philanthropy.   Vickie Davis, CoolCatTeacher Blog, let her students dump water on her and then taught them a lesson on fundraising for a good cause and about ALS.    Involving younger people in your organization’s campaigns, as champions, perhaps as part of a lesson on philanthropy is definitely something that can be replicated in other campaigns.

(5)  Whacky, Goofy, and Fun: “Stunt Philanthropy” has been around for years.  It is a combination of public dare combined with something outrageous.   In the early days of social fundraising, individuals challenge their networks to donate and they would do something crazy in response – like shave their head, sing a Beyonce song, or dress up like giant tomato and walk down 42nd street.  I chronicled some of these back in 2008.   But the top wild fundraisers by organizations have raised only a small percentage of what the ALS  Ice Bucket Challenge has raised so far – so if your nonprofit embraces stunts, be sure to adjust your expectations and take advantage of social proofing.   Also, make sure your stunt won’t cause a backlash and is appropriate to the timing of your campaign.  Ice Bucket Challenge in winter time would not have worked.

(6)  Social Proofing the Call To Action: Another reason is the social proofing element or social validation, where friends tag their friends on social network. Social proof is peer pressure in a positive way, the positive influence created when people find out others are doing something – now, suddenly, everyone else wants to do that something too.    Social proofing or tagging your call to donate is something that be replicated.

How Philanthropy and Fundraising Professionals Embraced the Ice Bucket Challenge

I enjoyed watching colleagues who are professionals in the nonprofit and philanthropy world share their Ice Bucket Challenges.   They mention why they are doing the challenge, the disease, and their personal connection.  They also tag their friends.      It is a reminder to have some good examples ready for your champions and supporters to emulate.

Kevin Conroy who works for Global Giving created a quiz about ALS to help everyone learn more about
Jasmine Hall Ratliff from Robert Wood Johnson Foundation challenged fellow staff members on the RWJF baseball team

The San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus challenged other Gay Choruses around the country!

Paull Young from charity:water donated to ALS, but used the opportunity to talk about charity:water and the importance of clean water and his birthday campaign in September.

Getting Asked By Your Board for An Ice Bucket Challenge?

Almost every development professional I spoken with in the last week or so has told me they have been asked for an ice bucket challenge by a board member or their boss.    So, if you are looking for some good reads, I suggest these articles:

1. Ritu Sharma: Can Your Nonprofit Catch Lightening in A Bucket

2. John Haydon:  3 Big Fundraising Lessons from Ice Bucket Challenge

3. Nonprofit Marketing Guide:  Creating Your Nonprofit’s Ice Bucket Challenge


As you can see, some aspects of the Ice Bucket Challenge can’t be replicated.   Most likely, no matter how your nonprofit incorporates some of the best practices, you probably won’t raise $80 million and get hundreds of celebrities to participate on their own.   As my colleague, Geoff Livingston notes, “For every BatKid and Ice Bucket Challenge, there are hundreds of failures.’     But you can certainly incorporate some of the best practices like social proofing, fun call to action, and embracing free agents to get better results.

16 Responses

  1. Jono Smith says:

    Great summary; great advice. Thanks for putting this together, Beth.

  2. […] donated to ALS –you can enjoy my washed up video, here. Lastly, top non profit thought leader Beth Kanter has questioned if this effort can be replicated, embedding the above […]

  3. Amy Gahran says:

    Beth – do you think that, where it can succeed, the Ice Bucket Challenge approach could work within a local community, a profession, or a subculture? Or could this only work where it has mass-audience and non-georgraphic appeal?

  4. […] har gjort några slides som sammanfattar Ice Bucket Challenge på ett intressant sätt. Beth Kanter tittar på vad NGOs och välgörenhetsbranschen kan lära sig av den. Tre viktiga lärdomar som NGOs kan dra av den har Razoo Foundation skrivit ihop. […]

  5. Beth says:


    I bet it could … if done right. Might not happen spontaneously …

  6. Donna says:

    Amy Gahran- you ask about an Ice Bucket Challenge for a local community, profession, or sub-culture. Check out Slates for Sarah as an example of an awareness campaign within a profession.

  7. Beth says:

    Is this what you’re talking about?

  8. […] “Ice Bucket Challenge: Can other non-profits reproduce it?” (Beth Kanter, 26 August) […]

  9. […] key questions about the ALS ice bucket challenge (with thanks for the links to Beth Kanter’s post discussing whether the challenge is reproducible for other […]

  10. […] to ALS –you can enjoy my washed up video, here. Lastly, prime non revenue thought chief Beth Kanter has questioned if this effort can be replicated, embedding the above […]

  11. […] Off the Ice Bucket Challenge and Make Social Media Work for Your Cause, Beth Kanter shared in Ice Bucket Challenge: Can Other Nonprofit Reproduce It, and Ritu Sharma shared in Can Your Cause Catch Lightening in an Ice […]

  12. […] Ice Bucket Challenge: Can Other Nonprofits Reproduce It? Beth Kanter’s Blog […]

  13. Donna says:

    Yes Beth- that’s Slates for Sarah. Very big within the film community, even managed to get Sarah recognized within the Oscar tribute reel.

  14. Just a waste of time and water in all around the world. I think noble cause is that help poor people by giving them money, food,shelter and other useful things not accepting these kind of deadly challenges.

  15. This is a great article! Love your point of view and practical advice for other nonprofits. Great links too 🙂

  16. […] to ALS –you can enjoy my washed up video, here. Lastly, prime non revenue thought chief Beth Kanter has questioned if this effort can be replicated, and even discovered other non-profits are emulating or “charity […]