The Ice Bucket Challenge and Social Media’s Role in Philanthropy

IceBucketChallengeOn a recent trip to Ireland with my wife, we were able to meet some of her relatives for the first time and visit the family farm on which her grandfather was born. We learned her cousins are all on Facebook, so my wife has since connected with them permanently through social media. When she first visited two of her cousins’ pages last week, she found a video of each of them pouring a bucket of ice water over their heads in support of ALS, proving the immense power and reach of social media. 

The Ice Bucket Challenge has truly transcended what most viral and social media campaigns seek to achieve. According toTime.com, it started with a golfer in Sarasota, Fla., who was nominated by a friend to participate in the challenge, which at that time was not tied to any specific charity. The golfer selected ALS because of a relative who was suffering from the disease. The campaign has now spread across the globe, in many different forms, and as stated by the ALS Association, has raised, to date (September 8), more than $110.5 million in donations – this is compared to $2.8 million during the same time period last year. This campaign shows us what is possible through the use of social media and, to some extent, where the limitations lie when seeking to build a comprehensive program of philanthropy. Yes, everyone is participating, but there seems to be limited penetration of real information about the disease and how money will impact finding a cure or helping those who suffer from the disease.  People are being “called out,” but this is different from being asked to give. There is massive participation – and it is entertaining – but how much traction will there be in giving from a long-term perspective?

Organizations are increasingly using social media as a means to communicate with donors and potentially raise money. And while social media can be a good platform, campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge can sometimes cause board members and fundraisers to ignore the larger goal of building and sustaining a comprehensive fundraising program. In a comprehensive program, new donors are engaged and stewarded over time, and there is an exchange of value regarding the mission of the nonprofit organization (and the benefit of contributing). Donors and prospects are segmented and those with the greatest interest and ability are asked to make major investments in the future of the organization and its cause. And social media can play an important role in accomplishing these tasks. Consistently, the organizations that do all of these things well and in an orchestrated fashion outperform their peers.

As a firm, we are using social media to reach out to our community, and we are advising our clients to do the same. But, we remain focused on understanding the benefits and the limitations of social media as well as integrating it into a comprehensive fundraising program that will produce the greatest financial results for our clients.