In today's world of social media fundraising, the ALS Association has hit the jackpot - and created a social media model that nonprofits everywhere are anxious to exploit. But can they?
Some of the richest and most powerful figures in business, politics, media and sports - from Mark Zuckerberg to George W. Bush to Oprah Winfrey to Dale Earnhardt Jr. - have happily shared videos that show buckets of cold water being dumped on their heads. It's all for the cause of funding research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a neurodegenerative illness commonly known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
The organization's Ice Bucket Challenge has raised more than $94.3 million since July 29 and spread information about ALS to millions of Facebook and Twitter users. The association raised $2.6 million during the same period last year.
"None of us could have imagined it would ever become this big or raise this much money," said Fred Fisher, the president and CEO of the Golden West Chapter of the ALS Association. "We all assume it will start to taper off and the world will go on. But who knows? It is going global, and people are hearing about it all over."
No doubt, many other nonprofit executives would like to be similarly blessed.
Philanthropy expert Beth Kanter, the Los Gatos-based author of "Measuring the Networked Nonprofit," says she imagines that staff at nonprofit organizations are now being pressed by their boards of directors to cook up the next viral fundraiser.
"We really look at this as a positive thing," said Laura Putnam, chairwoman of the American Heart Association's Greater Bay Area 2020 Task Force. "The success of the challenge is a testament to the power of social media to raise awareness over health conditions and funds for vital research."
Certainly, the challenge's genesis and meme-like spread offer a window into the factors that go into a successful, high-profile social media campaign, Kanter said.
The challenge works like this: You write out a $100 check to ALS or subject yourself to a soaking, then call out three friends to do the same within 24 hours.
Former President Bush nominated his "friend" Bill Clinton (who has yet to respond to the dare); Gwyneth Paltrow called out her consciously uncoupled ex, Chris Martin (who happily accepted); and Zuckerberg challenged fellow tech titan Bill Gates, who responded with a video of himself inventing an elaborate rope-pulled device to release water onto his head.
"At first I thought this ice bucket thing was silly," wrote Jason Becker, a Richmond, Calif., guitar player who once played with David Lee Roth's band, in a message he posted with Gates' video. Becker, 45, was diagnosed with ALS at age 20 and can no longer walk, speak or play guitar, but he composes music and communicates through eye movement.
"Now, I can't thank everyone enough for bring so much attention and awareness to ALS," he said in video Saturday before he took the challenge in a way that wouldn't leak water into his tracheotomy site. Two friends placed a bag of ice on his head. "Ack!" Becker said with a twinkle in his eye before challenging Eddie Van Halen, David Lee Roth and John Mayer; Mayer accepted with a dedication to Becker.
The idea of dumping cold water on one's head to support ALS didn't originate in the association's office, but began in July, among the friends of a former Boston College baseball player with ALS who did a group challenge.
The challenge's grass-roots origins and selfie-based technology added to its appeal, making it seem like something regular people can do to make a difference, Kanter said. "Social proofing" - a kind of peer pressure - also inspired people to get involved in something their friends are doing, she added.
But timing was key. In a summer filled with seemingly relentless bad news at home and abroad, people may have been looking for "something that makes us feel good while doing good and something silly," Kanter said.
But the stunt fundraiser has detractors, including Californians worrying about wasting water in a drought and Catholic Church leaders who say it conflicts with church teachings by funding embryonic stem-cell research.
Some experts in business and nonprofit management, including William MacAskill, a research fellow at
Cambridge University, voiced concerns that the challenge is a fad that will detract attention and dollars from other worthy causes and encourage "slactivism" - digital-enabled activism that involves little thought, effort or concerns about sustained results.
But both Kanter and Nora Silver, faculty director at the Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership at UC Berkeley's Haas School of Business, say the campaign's pluses outweigh the minuses. Even if millions of people jumped on the icy bandwagon simply because their friends were doing it, the campaign brought news about ALS to the masses. "More knowledge and awareness is good," Silver said.
And both experts, as well as the Heart Association's Putnam, predict there could be a "rising tide lifts all boats" effect, with participants in this cause exploring ways they can help in other health crusades.
Fisher said the publicity for ALS also brings attention to other more well-known neurodegenerative disorders, including Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, which are the fifth-leading cause of death in the United States. Research into ALS may enhance understanding of those conditions, as well.
One thing's for certain, Silver said: The ALS Association will need to carefully consider how it manages this windfall, because it is not likely to see such an influx of cash ever again.
"But that's a good challenge to have," she said.