After the Ice Bucket Challenge

Blog: Social Innovation

— Patrick Boardman 

Somewhere alongside the Harlem Shake and Kim Kardashian, ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge became one of the most memorable memes of the past several years. Seventeen million of us voluntarily doused ourselves with freezing water on camera to raise funds for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, producing more than $115 million in less than two months.

We recently learned that funding from the Ice Bucket Challenge spurred a discovery that may help develop therapies that will treat ALS.

Everyone marveled at the campaign’s success, and many tried to duplicate it, but fundraising-by-meme comes with its own set of challenges. Throughout the very nuanced and noisy conversation about its now-signature program, ALS Association has communicated with transparency and foresight.

So just how did the nonprofit manage to overcome the “Ice Bucket Challenge” challenge? By following these rules of thumb, ALS Association – and other organizations like it – can navigate the aftermath of a social media sensation.

  1. Fighting slacktivism. Memes rarely convey complex information, and many Ice Bucket videos didn’t mention ALS at all (a traditional no-no in marketing communications). To create lasting advocates for the disease, ALS Association needed to complement the video sensation with programs that educate and raise awareness. Since the challenge wrapped, the charity has created quick, digestible infographics and grassroots campaigns that carry and promote messages the Ice Bucket Challenge couldn’t.
  2. Knowing when to sit it out. On some topics, ALS Association has shown that it can prudently opt out of a conversation. For example, when some bloggers questioned the ALS challenge for cannibalizing finite funding for their own pet causes, the nonprofit elected to remain silent. In the end, studies showing record-setting individual contributions to charity in 2014 and 2015 silenced critics who doubted that the overall funding pie would just get bigger.
  3. Avoiding the “flash in the pan” phenomenon. Perhaps most importantly, ALS has continued to communicate about how ice bucket dollars are making a difference year after year. In 2015, a researcher from Johns Hopkins School of Medicine praised the Ice Bucket Challenge’s impact, claiming ALS Association funds helped him and his team understand the function of a protein that underperforms in 97 percent of all ALS patients. This past week’s news is further proof that the association intends to continue telling meaningful stories about the difference it is making.

A meme on par with the popularity of the Ice Bucket Challenge will also no doubt generate useful data and commentary from high-visibility participants. In the hands of a savvy communicator, today’s data points and influencer shout-outs can go on to become tomorrow’s insights and brand advocate partners.

So as the global health landscape continues its struggle to secure institutional funding for challenges like Ebola and Zika (as well as communicate awareness and treatment), you can expect the backlash against fundraising fads to continue. Maybe in a utopia that ignores temperamental human motivation, research funding dollars would be neatly allocated to diseases according to the number of people affected or lives that can be saved. In the meantime, it’s easy to see how your organization can benefit from following ALS Association’s example. You might also look out for the next social impact meme and take note if its legacy is as lasting (not to mention as wet and cold) as the Ice Bucket Challenge.

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