#IFC2015: Viral Fundraising Campaigns One Year Later: What Can We Learn? | Beth's Blog

#IFC2015: Viral Fundraising Campaigns One Year Later: What Can We Learn?



Prepping for our Big Room Session at IFC

After keynoting during a plenary session 2014, I was thrilled to be invited back to the IFC (International Fundraising Congress), a conference for fundraisers from around the world to facilitate a Master Class on leadership on social media, Workshops on using design thinking for crowd funded campaigns, and moderate a Big Room session on viral fundraisers.

Before I share some the big takeaways from the Big Room session, let me tell you about the IFC.     It is one of the best nonprofit conferences I’ve  attended in over my 35 years in the sector.    I learned some much from the sessions as well as the opportunities to socialize and network.  The reason is because the program is well curated – and the participants come from around the world and bring expertise and different lens to fundraising. But there is more …

There is a wonderful community here.  There are some people who have been involved for many years and they are not treated as “the old guard” or behave in that way.  They reach out and welcome and mentor newcomers and newer people to the community.     Each session has someone assigned from the community to help curate and assist.     It is great to observe a conference where the “elders” and the next generation of young leaders provide mutual respect and support.

I moderated a “Big Room Session” about viral fundraising campaigns:

Having your fundraising campaign go viral on social media and beyond is a development officer’s  dream scenario.    This interactive session, facilitated by Beth Kanter, will feature Lance Slaughter,  The ALS Association and Kate Collins, Teenage Cancer Trust, both charities that have experienced the wild ride of a fundraising campaign go viral.     Panelists will share insights about how their campaigns got started and ignited media and donor interest and contributions.  They will also discuss the many opportunities and challenges that arise from the aftermath of a viral campaign and more importantly the lessons they have learned about replicating the results.


The ALS IceBucket Challenge in 2014 that raised over $115 million is well known to all, but this FAQ can help refresh your memory.   In August, 2015, the second ALS Icebucket Challenge took place.   Stephen’s Story was a campaign launched by Teenage cancer fundraiser Stephen Sutton who passed away from cancer, but not before raising several million pounds for the charity as part of his bucket list.   You can read a summary of the viral campaign here and here.

Our session used the following structure.   Each presenter gave a summary of their campaign as follows:

  • The Genesis: How did it get started?
  • The New Normal:  What was impact on your organization and its fundraising?
  • The Second Time Around:  What did you learn from trying to replicate it? 

After they presented, we had a discussion between the three of us and then brought in the audience.  Here were the questions we discussed:

  • What advice to do you offer to those who might have a board member or a boss asks you to plan and implement a viral campaign?
  • What mindsets and skill sets does an organization need to have in place to 1) get an early indicator of a potential viral campaign 2) nurture it so it can flourish
  • Given that both of you have experienced and benefited a viral campaign that your organization did not start, what lessons can you offer about how to sustain success one year afterwards?
  • What have you learned that you are applying to fundraising/social media strategy now that you didn’t use before?

It as a fantastic discussion.  Here are the takeaways:

  • You can’t make campaigns “go viral” on demand.
  • If your organization is monitoring and adaptive you can react appropriately to harness a potential viral campaign when there are some early indications.    Both ALS and Teenage Cancer Trust had early indications that social media activity and donation amounts coming in were atypical.    Both organizations investigated why this was happening and were able to swiftly react to support the emerging viral campaign so it escalated.   Here, the combination of crisis management and improvisation skills are important, not unlike disaster relief fundraisers.
  • Organizations need to lead with humility not control. Top down control culture won’t be agile enough to nurture a potential a viral campaign.
  • Even though both campaigns did not achieve the same dramatic results as the first year,  the “new normal” was spectacular.    For ALS, the average age of their donors plunged from age 50 to age 30 and they brought in people who were not directly impacted by the disease.  They have sustained a healthy percentage of giving over what was “normal” prior to the challenge – so that what they consider to be a success.     They have had to change the way to engage and interact with new donors.
  • Both campaigns had hyper-connected individuals who helped ignite it.  Stephen, who did the fundraising for the Teenage Cancer Trust, had a fairly large online network and had done some fundraisers prior to his campaign.  His campaign was amplified by other influencers.  The same for the ALS Icebucket challenge – who had a hyper-connected individual Peter Frates involved and who had done fundraising for ALS prior to the Ice Bucket Challenge.    The secret to success was not hyper-connectivity alone – it was authentic connection to the cause and an emotionally charged story.
  • Heartfelt story telling is essential.   (More here on storytelling best practices) In both campaigns, there was an authentic, emotional, and compelling story — and that person was the hero of the story – not the organization.   When the organization doesn’t own the campaign, it allows for what Henry Timms describes as “new power” to happen.
  • Both organizations had to embrace improvised leadership versus scripted leadership.   It requires being comfortable with faster feedback loops and reporting to public or “agile transparency.”
  • Both focused on trust versus control, especially by letting supporters or donors take the lead.

What has your organization learned about viral campaigns?



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