Update: As of September 6, this fundraising effort had exceeded the $100 million mark predicted in this story and reached $113 million.
First, let’s assume everyone has heard about this enormously successful fundraising effort by now. At last count, almost $80 million has been raised in about five weeks for the ALS Association, all from videos of people dumping buckets of ice water on themselves. It’s also interesting that as the dollar amount grows, so does the number of articles poking holes in this effort and questioning the concept. Once you learn that it started out as a loosely planned fundraising effort, however, it seems like an odd thing to criticize. It wasn’t a well-thought out communications strategy based on reams of research. Its success has really been more of a social media anomaly. Having said that, here are some responses to a few of those criticisms.
Criticism #1: it cannibalizes other donations
Because people typically limit how much they donate to causes every year, The Ice Bucket Challenge will take money and attention away from other charities, which may be able to use those funds more effectively. (William MacAskill, quartz.com)
While this possible outcome is supported by MacAskill’s research, it also shows us the nature of our competitive marketplace. We don’t like to think of non-profit organizations as groups who are competing against each other but most are. And with good reason. According to a 2010 U.S. study, 78% of high-value donors to non-profits indicated that they would also donate the following year. It now becomes the ALS Association’s challenge to identify their new high-value donors and nurture these new relationships. With today’s count of 1.7 million new ALSA donors, this will be no easy task. At the same time, other non-profits are challenged to create their own success stories.
Criticism #2: we’re donating for the wrong reasons
We shouldn’t select a charity to support based on a video posted by a celebrity. We should do our homework before making this decision. (Julia Belluz, vox.com)
I agree with this point. However, it seems to be based on the assumption that attaching a celebrity to a product or cause will lead to immediate success. And that part is not necessarily true. In fact, according to research from Advertising Age, celebrity endorsements are increasingly ineffective, and “today’s consumer is more likely to be influenced by someone in their social network.” All this makes the unprecedented success of the The Ice Bucket Challenge an even more interesting case study. And, unfortunately, it makes it more difficult to replicate.
Criticism #3: it isn’t creating awareness
The Ice Bucket Challenge videos focus on the participants and not on the disease. People may be donating but they are not learning more about ALS. (Will Oremus, ChicagoTribune.com)
This perspective seems too narrow when you consider awareness that may be created in other ways connected to the videos, such as through a news story or a website visit. It would be interesting for the ALS Association to send a survey to campaign participants a few weeks from now, asking them if they learned anything new about the disease. As long as it happened in some way, it still counts as awareness.
According to forbes.com, there is already a list of things we can learn from this “perfect storm of social media, celebrity and grass-roots philanthropy.” But maybe we should wait a while before completely dissecting it. Who knows? It may hit $100 million by next week.
Saul Torres is Vice President of Creative Services at RSW, where he has led several successful awareness and fundraising campaigns for the North Texas Food Bank. He is also an adjunct professor of branding and completed his masters’ thesis on the topic of microdonations.