What hospital fundraisers can learn from the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Challenge is simple, spreads easily, and can work for everyone

Hospitals can learn a lot about fundraising and the power of grass roots marketing from the wildly popular ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, Rachel Landen writes in Modern Healthcare.

What is the Ice Bucket Challenge?

The challenge was started by friends of former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, in 2012. The challenge involves either donating money to ALS research or dumping a bucket of ice water on your head within 24 hours of receiving the challenge. The idea is to keep the cycle going and encourage other friends to accept the challenge or make a donation.

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Between July 29 (around when the challenge started) and Aug. 27, the ALS Association received $94.3 million in donations—a more than a 3,300% increase over donations collected during the same period last year.

Why it went viral

"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," says Caryn Stein, vice president of communications 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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Another key component is that it is simple and "anyone can participate," says Rhoda Weiss, chair of the American Marketing Association's Executive Leadership Summit.

Additionally, the challenge creates a "sense of urgency" because it gives people only 24 hours to participate, says Sarah Barnes, director of marketing at not-for-profit Campbell & Co. That urgency spread quickly via social media networks, especially Facebook with its billion-plus users and Twitter with its 270 million users.

How to get the most 'bang for your charity buck'

Essentially, "you have to 'friend raise' before you fundraise," says Weiss. Since the challenge asks participants to first "friend" the ALS Association on Facebook before participating, the organization has added about two million new friends. Going forward, the organization can reach out to donors the same way they came in—through social media—to continue the conversation, experts say.

"Social media is a great way to engage donors and get your message out there," says Campbell & Co.'s Adam Wilhelm, adding, "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."

David Flood, vice chair of the Association for Healthcare Philanthropy, says "Some are trying to suggest that this is a flash in the pan, but flashes in the pan get things started" (Landen, Modern Healthcare, 8/27 [subscription required]).

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