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Ice Bucket Challenge offers great lessons in healthcare fundraising

By Rachel Landen
Posted: August 27, 2014 - 3:15 pm ET

While social media is deluged with videos of people dumping buckets of ice water on their heads in the name of ALS advocacy and philanthropy, other healthcare not-for-profits can find marketing lessons in the challenge that they can use for their own fundraising efforts.

Chief among those lessons, be it for a disease-linked effort or a new hospital wing, is the power of grass-roots marketing. Another is to convey a sense of urgency about contributing while personalizing your appeal because people relate more readily to people than to faceless causes, marketing experts agree.

To call the Ice Bucket Challenge, which has its origins outside of the official not-for-profit ALS organization, an Internet sensation would be an understatement. Without the association having to pay the costs of a traditional fundraising campaign, it's become a national phenomenon, attracting the attention and support of actors, athletes, musicians and even former presidents who have doused themselves in ice water and then challenged friends and colleagues to do the same within 24 hours or donate $100 to the ALS Association. And from the looks of it, many people have done both.

“One of the reasons this worked so well was because it was grass-roots driven. As it was passed from person to person, it gathered so much momentum,” said Caryn Stein, vice president of communications and content at online fundraising platform Network for Good. “The other piece was that it tapped into the idea of social networks, not just as a technology, but as a mode of our communication.”

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People who may not previously have heard of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease which causes loss of muscle control and movement, paralysis, and the inability to speak or breathe, were introduced online to the symptom and stories. They saw videos of people like 29-year-old Pete Frates, a former college baseball player who was diagnosed with ALS in 2012, participate in the challenge despite being unable to speak.

“It's crazy how it exploded,” said Julia Campbell of J Campbell Social Marketing. “I've from Beverly, Mass., where Pete Frates is from. I saw it here first, and then all of a sudden, the Red Sox were doing it, and then celebrities. It's pretty unbelievable how fast it happened.”

Even Campbell's 5-year-old daughter wanted to participate, she said.

And that's part of what has made the campaign so successful, according to experts.

“Anyone can do it. Anyone can participate,” said Rhoda Weiss, national healthcare consultant and chair of the American Marketing Association's Executive Leadership Summit. “If we're going to create healthier communities, it has to be simple. We have to engage our audience.”

That starts with a simple call to action, experts say. For the Ice Bucket Challenge, that means that a person simply records a video of ice water being dumped on him or herself, posts it online, and then names—and tags—at least one other person to follow their lead. Experts say that peer pressure induces people to join in.

“The old adage is people give to people, and this is a prime example,” said Adam Wilhelm, senior consultant at not-for-profit consultancy Campbell & Co., a Chicago-based not-for-profit marketing consultant. “It's peer-to-peer fundraising at its best.”

Timeframe creates sense of urgency

And the 24-hour window to participate, which begins its countdown when a person is challenged, also helps spur people to action.

“It creates a sense of urgency,” said Sarah Barnes, director of marketing and communications at Campbell & Co.

That urgency has spread across personal networks, thanks to the way the campaign harnesses social media, allowing participants to reach far more people than just their immediate peers. After all, Facebook has well over a billion active monthly users. Twitter has more than 270 million and Instagram counts about 150 million.

“You have to be where your donors are,” Campbell said. “I always see social media as a handshake. People need to know you before they donate to you.”

And people have certainly donated. Between July 29—when the Ice Bucket Challenge kicked off—and Aug. 27, the ALS Association received $94.3 million in donations from existing donors and 2.1 million new ones. That's a more than a 3,300% increase in donations received during the same period last year for a disease that strikes about 5,600 Americans annually.

However, experts caution that while organizations hoping to duplicate the ALS Association's success can look for lessons in the campaign, they should not see it as providing a magic bullet to be slavishly copied in their own efforts.

“Not all campaigns will go viral. Not all will end up with Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg challenging each other,” Stein said. “But that's not the only goal. It's to see the message spread within your community.”

“We would be foolish to suggest in any way that this is a negative for philanthropy,” said David Flood, vice chair of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy. “Some are trying to suggest that this is a flash in the pan, but flashes in the pan get things started.”

And according to Weiss, “You have to 'friend raise' before you fundraise.”

The ALS Association now has about 2 million new friends, and continuing to build on that momentum and keep those people engaged will be the real challenge for it in the coming weeks and months. Reaching back out to donors in the same way they came in—through social media—to express appreciation and show them the impact of their dollars is one way to continue the conversation, experts suggest.

“Social media is a great way to engage donors and get your message out there,” Wilhelm said. “It's a great way of identifying and acquiring new donors, but then you have to think about how to steward all these people and lead them to the next giving opportunity.”

Follow Rachel Landen on Twitter: @MHrlanden

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