What do ice-buckets have to do with fundraising?

The #IceBucketChallenge has taken social media and the fundraising world by storm over the past few months. What can we learn from this highly successful viral campaign?

Guest blog post by Ruendree Govinder, founder of the Nonprofit Network and Online Media Consultant for Inyathelo.

What do ice-buckets have to do with fundraising?

If you haven't been following social media recently, the Ice Bucket Challenge involved dumping a bucket of ice water over someone’s head to encourage donations to research for Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). The act was filmed or photographed and shared on social media, where participants would nominate friends to also take the challenge. Some people chose to do the challenge, some donated money, and some did both. The challenge origins are murky and were not initially associated with ALS.

The phenomenon spread quickly. At its peak, people shared more than 1.2 million videos on Facebook and it was mentioned more than 2.2 million times on Twitter. Celebrities jumped on board – Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg did the challenge and nominated Bill Gates. Charlie Sheen  and a host of other celebrities participated. Click to view some of the resulting videos and photos

Even President Obama was nominated, and while he declined the challenge he did donate $100. 

Interestingly, while over $100 million was raised internationally for various organisations associated with ALS, the majority of the participants did not actually donate money. In the UK, as much as one in every six people participated in the challenge, but only one in ten people donated. Still, the resulting donations broke fundraising records internationally.

There has been a lot of criticism of the challenge, from the amount of water that was wasted, to the “self-congratulatory” nature of the act, to the fact that many participants did not donate or raise awareness of the issue but were simply having fun.  Many didn’t even mention that the point was to donate money when they challenged their friends. Also, with such a lengthy, intense and high profile campaign there are concerns about donor fatigue – mainly that if people donate to ALS they would not donate elsewhere.

However, we can’t deny that there is much to be learned from the phenomenon.

  • One of the main reasons it was so successful was the use of social media peer pressure. People called on their friends by name, in a public forum, to participate.

  • The challenge appealed to the narcissism of social media: people did not simply donate money, but made a public spectacle of it and used the videos and images to get “likes” and “retweets” (modern age accolades) on social media.

  • The action they had to take was simple – film or photograph a bucket of ice water being dumped on your head, and/or donate money for ALS. It was particularly appealing during a hot summer in the US.

  • The campaign stood out. For anyone using any form of social media, it was hard to miss the videos and images of people having ice water dumped on their heads. This level of exposure is difficult to achieve in such a crowded media space.

  • The challenge was never about a specific foundation or organisation. It was about people with ALS. Participants could choose who to donate to.

  • Ultimately, it was fun! Raising money for serious causes does not have to be a serious affair. Engaging people with a fun, frivolous activity seems to be the new trend in online fundraising.


Another successful version of this kind of campaign is the #nomakeupselfie which succeeded for similar reasons. Read more: http://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2014/mar/25/nomakeupselfie-viral-campaign-cancer-research

#WakeUpCall, Unicef’s campaign to raise money and awareness of the plight of children in Syria, is already gathering steam: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/social-media/11144671/Wake-Up-Call-the-new-Ice-Bucket-Challenge.html

Hopefully, a South African viral campaign can’t be far behind!


* Join us at our #GetResourceful session on #VoiceandVisibility on 14 October to learn more about growing your media presence to attract support — both online and offline!