DickersonBakker Blog

Is the Ice Bucket Challenge a Sustainable Fundraising Model?

Social media sites like Facebook and YouTube are lighting up with the ice bucket challenge. From Bill Gates (who engineered his own structure for the water dump) to Matt Damon (who dumped toilet water on his head to also raise awareness for countries without clean drinking water), people all over the country have participated in this fundraiser-gone-viral. Currently, over 80 million dollars have been donated to the ALS Association, which is phenomenal.

As wildly successful as it is, it’s only natural that nonprofits are thinking, “How can we do our own version of the ice bucket challenge?” People want in on this fundraising magic, but there’s an important question we’re missing: Is it a sustainable fundraising model?

There are a few problems with ice-bucket-style fundraising. First, ask yourself this question: “What do I know about ALS?” Personally, I know it’s also called “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” but I wouldn’t be able to tell you what the symptoms are or even what “ALS” stands for. Even after the ice bucket challenge went viral, I didn’t actually learn anything about the cause. After the challenge fades away, will anyone even remember what it was about? On the other hand, a sustainable fundraiser, much like compelling branding, makes your organization and your cause memorable. It builds a relationship with your donors, forming a loyal base for your nonprofit.

Second, there’s an element of guilt-tripping to the ice bucket challenge. There’s huge visibility and accountability on social media, so if you get nominated to donate and don’t, you look like a huge jerk. Nobody wants that, so giving becomes more about preserving your self-image than championing a cause. Guilt will get a nonprofit a one-time donation, but not a loyal donor.

Remember when the Livestrong rubber bracelets came out? They were another example of a creative, solidarity type of fundraiser, and soon after, all kinds of rubber bracelets came out for various organizations. There are all kinds of colors out there now, but nobody knows what they’re all for. But—and here’s the catch—people do know how to recognize the Livestrong bracelets themselves.

Other organizations will try to replicate the ice bucket challenge fundraising model, but I can guarantee they won’t be as successful. The ALS Association has the advantage of novelty and pop culture momentum, but all viral videos have an expiration date.

So, was this an amazing fundraising idea? Well, the ALS Association hit it out of the park, at least this time. But is it sustainable? Can the ALS Association count on the ice bucket challenge as a fundraiser for ten, twenty, or thirty years? I doubt it.

That’s why, for sustainable fundraising, you need a solid, renewable plan which will support your organization for years to come. That’s the kind of plan that our consultants specialize in. Flash-in-the-pan fundraising gimmicks have their place, but in the long run, your nonprofit would do better to go for something less sensational and more sustainable.

Back to blog