How to Create an Ice Bucket-type Challenge for Your Nonprofit: A Formula for Success

Jimmy Fallon and friends prepare to take the Ice Bucket Challenge

Are you wringing your hands because your boss or board wants you to come up with a viral social campaign to rival the “Ice Bucket Challenge?” Oy!

I was first introduced to this phenomenon one evening as I was watching the Jimmy Fallon show on t.v. Jimmy, some of his crew and his band all dumped buckets of ice water on their heads; then challenged the New York Jets to do so as well (Jimmy had been challenged by Justin Timberlake). I had no idea why they were doing it or what the “Ice Bucket Challenge” was about.

Then, like all viral phenomena of this sort, I began to hear about it again and again. Lots and lots of celebrities were taking the challenge. Wow! What was this thing all about? It certainly captured my attention. Gradually I learned it had been started by some supporters of finding a cure for ALS (aka amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or “Lou Gehrig’s Disease”), and not by the charity at all.

Who knows why it got the type of traction it did? It’s like trying to figure out why Justin Bieber’s music video on YouTube made him into a mega-star and yours did not. Talent? Serendipity? The stars aligning? An accident?

Let’s go back to what happened. The viral adoption of this video generated significant donations – in the multi-millions –causing as much as a 1000% spike in giving for ALS charities and the ALS Association in particular. Some are hailing this campaign as the next best thing since pet rocks, while others are voicing concerns about it being too gimmick-based and not “genuine” thoughtful philanthropy.

Is a gimmick a bad thing?

Remember the Broadway musical “Gypsy,” starring Ether Merman as the mother of a famous stripper, Gypsy Rose Lee? To stand out, Gypsy got herself a gimmick. Others (Miss Mahzeppa, Electra and Tessie Tura) had theirs. And so the well-known and hilarious tune “You Gotta Have a Gimmick .” Much of good sales takes a page from this same book. There’s nothing wrong with a good hook. Something that makes you memorable. And, especially, a gimmick that lets you have fun.

Not all gimmicks are created equal.

The problem with the Ice Bucket Challenge in my view is that too many folks know only about the challenge to dump a bucket of frigid water over their heads. Matt Lauer did it on the Today show and didn’t mention ALS at all. Folks remember the gimmick; not the cause. They have no idea why they’re doing it (other than to have fun and look cool). And perhaps this is because it was started by supporters rather than pros.

If you’re tasked to come up with a gimmick (as a pro), keep in mind to…

(1)   assure it is indelibly stamped with your cause’s name. Otherwise you run the same risk you run with many fundraising events. What risk? The risk of this becoming a one-time “transaction” rather than the beginning of a transformation for both the donor and your organization.

(2)   consider upfront what you’ll do to get folks who share your “something” to take subsequent actions. If people donate, how will you welcome them to your family? How will you thank them… inform them about who they’ve helped… engage them further… stay connected with them?

I will say that the Ice Bucket Challenge is one of the more peculiar bits of awareness-building I’ve seen. In fact, the end result of millions of dollars raised seems almost miraculous given the charge. As The ALS Association describes the rules:

The challenge involves people getting doused with buckets of ice water on video, posting that video to social media, then nominating others to do the same, all in an effort to raise ALS awareness. Those who refuse to take the challenge are asked to make a donation to the ALS charity of their choice.

Say what? That means everyone you’ve ever seen dump water on themselves, per the rules, is not asked to donate. As Jacob Davidson writes in Time Magazine’s We Need to Do Better Than the Ice Bucket Challenge: “They may choose to, but the viral nature of this fad appears centered around an aversion to giving to money. ‘Want to help fight this disease? No? Well, then you better dump some cold water on your head.’ The challenge even seems to be suggesting that being cold, wet, and uncomfortable is preferable to fighting ALS.

Hmmn… So why did it work anyway? Why is it raising so much money – not just awareness – for the cause?

I’m not sure, but I do think this bears some study. To all the naysayers out there Throwing Cold Water on Ice Bucket Philanthropy I say it’s too soon to throw the baby out with the ice water. Something is happening here. What it is ain’t exactly clear. But ALS reports that more than 70,000 new donors have given money to one of its 38 chapters since July 29. That’s a LOT of new donors.

My hunch is that it has something to do with our collective human desire to help.

To do good. To feel good [The fact that the Ice Bucket challenge was a lot of fun certainly adds to the ‘feel good’ factor here]. And the truth is that those dumping water on their heads are doing so in mock misery. It’s playful and entertaining, and the fact that it’s for a good cause makes folks feel good about themselves.

Research by Dacher Kelter, U.C. Berkeley psychologist and author of “Born to be Good: The Science of a Meaningful Life,” reveals that human beings are wired to be selfless. He traces this back to Darwin’s findings that societies that took care of their own survived the longest. Survival of the kindest preceded survival of the fittest. The research also suggests that the more generous we are, the more respect and influence we wield. So the kindest are the fittest!

Perhaps the folks who witness us in perceived acts of generosity (like raising awareness for a cause) are naturally influenced to follow suit. Generosity begets generosity.

This still doesn’t account for the virality of this particular challenge. And, again, I’m drawn back to luck, chance and serendipity as an explanation. You can come up with a pet rock or a hula hoop once in a while, but you can’t easily replicate that success. Because once it’s been done, it’s not attention-grabbing anymore. It’s old news, and no one notices.

So what do you do if you’re tasked to “do an Ice Bucket Challenge for your charity”?

Simply showing generosity in action isn’t enough to cause a movement. The fact that I give does not cause everyone on my block to give, because they don’t notice it. [If a tree falls in the forest and no one witnesses it, does it make a sound?] And this is why I take issue with Victor Fiorillo, a reporter for Philadelphia magazine, calling the Ice Bucket Challenge “stupid,” and suggesting that people not do the bucket dumping thing but simply “donate the damn money, whether to the ALS Association or to some other charity of your choice.”

That won’t work, because you only have the act of generosity that no one else will witness. And the fact that it’s “stupid” is one of the reasons it’s fun. So you need to have two things working hand-in-hand.

Let’s begin our formula with:

A generous act and a fun attention-grabbing gimmick.

One of the organizations I work with, Homeward Bound of Marin, did something like this in a challenge to get everyone to emulate well-known philanthropist Warren Buffett. They began with the generous act, asking Mr. Buffet to buy “a share of stock” in what they called their IPO (Immediate Philanthropic Opportunity) . Homeward Bound of Marin asked Warren Buffet to buy the initial share for $50; then asked others to consider joining this “unique shareholder club” by investing at the same level as Warren. It worked!

Perhaps what these IPO and Ice Bucket Challenges have in common is that they play into one of Robert Cialdini ’s key principles of persuasion: People are inclined to follow those they perceive as authorities.

So now let’s add this to our formula:

1 generous act by an “authority figure” + 1 fun attention grabbing gimmick = successful crowd fundraising campaign.

But we’re not quite finished. I would add to this the need to tie the gimmick to the cause more blatantly than was the case with the Ice Bucket challenge. As noted, many of the “authority figures” taking the challenge didn’t even mention ALS. As Will Oremus, writing for Slate, noted:

“More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.”

So now let’s add this to our formula:

1 generous act by an “authority figure” + 1 fun attention grabbing gimmick indelibly tied to the cause = successful crowd fundraising campaign.

But I’m still troubled by one thing. And that’s how sustainable this type of fundraising may be. The ALS charities have 70,000 new donors to contend with. If they are like most charities, and simply do business as usual, they’re at best likely to retain only 3 in 10 of these supporters. Even worse, one study found that for every $5.35 that respondent organizations raised in gift dollars in 2010, $5.54 was lost through attrition – a negative 1.9 percent growth-in-giving ratio. What a waste of a great bit of serendipity that would be!

Which brings me back to determining, up front, how you’ll follow through to turn these one-time “transactions” into more than one-night stands.

The ice bucket dumping thing can only happen once. And clearly, as over the moon ALS is about all the money they’ve raised, they’d be out the solar system if they could count on these folks to give again year after year. And this requires a relationship building plan.

When you simply transact, there’s very little engagement involved. It’s cut and dried. Not a relationship, but a business deal. You do it; it’s done. Settled. Concluded. Over and out. With transformation real change occurs. The giver becomes an investor. A member of your family. A convert married to your cause. The commitment ends only with “death do you part.”

So now let’s add this final piece to our formula:

1 generous act by an “authority figure”


1 fun attention grabbing gimmick indelibly tied to the cause


1 relationship-building plan in place to steward supporters


Successful sustainable crowd fundraising campaign!

If celebrities and authority figures acting silly can get more of us to follow suit and act on our natural impulses towards kindness and compassion, then so much the better. If we fundraising pros can figure out a way to capture lightning in a bottle – putting in place a relationship-building plan that turns one-time transactions into transformative, ongoing giving, then that’s better still.

What do you think?

Opt In Image
Get Clairification via email and receive free fundraising and nonprofit marketing coaching you can use!

As an added BONUS, you’ll get my popular “Donor Thank Calls E-Book + Script” for free.

About Claire

I’m Claire and I want to help you raise more money, reach more people and build long-lasting relationships with your supporters. Take a look in the archives.


  1. This is the most insightful analysis I’ve seen of the ice budget phenomenon. Thanks, as always, Claire, for helping our community unpack the work (and cause/effect and best practices) so thoughtfully!

  2. Thanks for the great post. Here is an additional point for consideration.

    At a recent discussion with colleagues, we also added that the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge was successful because it went across generational and social-economic lines.

    • That’s a good point Randy. So, if you can, add “fun gimmick, indelibly connected to the cause, that cuts across generational and socio-economic boundaries.” :-)

  3. NANCY bROWN says:

    Most of the commentary around this subject misses the fact that ALS did not initiate this challenge. An individual living with ALS started the challenge among his friends. It in turn went viral and ALS made a smart, strategic decision to keep it going by sharing an already viral sensation. Unfortunately for those of us in the professional fundraising world when something such as this happens (anyone remember yellow LiveStrong bracelets, AIDS ribbons), we are challenged to create our own groundswell inspiring “thing.” Your article is a solid response to such challenges.

    • You’re correct Nancy. ALS didn’t start this, which is why it’s so hard to replicate. Lightning struck for ALS — in a good way. What’s instructive is to watch and learn from what’s happening as a result.

  4. I love this. A lot. I have been trying to brainstorm something like the ALS Ice bucket challenge since it went viral, so this is definitely helpful!

  5. I heard about the ice bucket challenge – but not about ALS. I knew it was to raise money and initially, assumed it was a water-oriented mission. And when I did hear the words” for ALS”, no one ever explained what it was. So yes, I had the same questions you did. However, your post does a great job “clarifying” an approach nonprofits could take to begin thinking about doing something like this. It’s often easier to say why something failed than why it succeeds. You have done a great job identifying what it takes to succeed.


  1. […] organizations can learn from this viral fundraising phenomenon (including by my colleagues Claire Axelrad and Amy […]

  2. […] How to Create an Ice Bucket-type Challenge for Your Nonprofit: A Formula for Success […]

Speak Your Mind


CommentLuv badge