The chilly challenge accepted ‘round the world has unleashed a tsunami of YouTube videos and millions of dollars for research of Lou Gehrig’s disease.
But even as everyone from former President George W. Bush to pop singer Britney Spears issues their own ALS ice bucket challenge, the question on many minds is: What happens after the ice melts and attention is focused on the next viral cause?
“This has taken on a whole new life of its own,” said Gene Tempel, founding dean of the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy. “This is probably the single largest event using social media to raise money. It is just unbelievable, and of course, the [ALS Association] is trying to figure out how to respond to that.”
In the past month, the ALS Association has collected $88.5 million, thanks in large part to the nearly 2 million new donors who chose to support the organization after being challenged to either dump a bucket of ice water over their head, or donate cash to the cause.
This time last year the association brought in $2.6 million.
“We’re already talking about it,” ALS Association spokeswoman Carrie Munk said. “It’s kind of an interesting situation. We’re not sure any other charity has seen this type of influx of monetary support that’s not related to a disaster or an emergency.”
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Last week, donations had topped out at about $23 million. Now the organization is raking in funding at an average of $9 million per day.
The challenge is simple: A person has 24 hours to choose whether to donate money to the ALS Association or pour a bucket of ice water over his or her head. They then issue the same challenge to three other people.
Families, friends, coworkers and teammates have posted videos of the bucket pours. Politicians and talk-show hosts have accepted the challenge, and even Hollywood stars have sacrificed their good hair for the good cause.
The ease with which it’s possible to participate, said Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, is what lends the challenge to being viral.
“It virtually takes no preparation, no financial commitment, you don’t even have to do it,” she said. “All you have to do is go into your back yard. There’s no previous commitment. All you have to have is a bucket with ice in it. You don’t have to get commitments from anybody.”
With no barriers to entry, plus the humor that comes from watching someone get doused with frigid water, the challenge is easy for anyone to participate in.
“In the world we live in, [charitable donations] are highly valued,” Ms. Heisman said. “Giving to charity is something we really treasure in our society.”
Unfortunately, society also tends to have a short attention span, which presents the problem of not only bringing in donors but keeping them interested, she said.
“This is such a difficult thing to replicate over time,” Ms. Heisman said. “Even though this has been remarkably appealing and a wonderful activity for the ALS Association to raise money, how replicable is it for them or anybody?”
Not only is a viral campaign like the ice bucket challenge hard to replicate, Ms. Heisman said, but the struggle of ALS sufferers is not nearly as well known as other issues such as breast cancer or heart disease.
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, is a deadly disease that affects the nervous system. Physicist Stephen Hawking suffers from the disease.
“The whole thing is making the case for support,” Ms. Heisman said. “Making the case with a story or an image, information that the donor gets about the cause, something emotionally moving for them. Really good story telling is what triggers really powerful philanthropy; the act of making it real.”
Perhaps no better example of this is the annual Jerry Lewis telethon to raise money for muscular dystrophy. The Labor Day fundraiser has raised more than $2 billion since it began in 1966.
To be sure, the ice bucket challenge isn’t the first viral campaign.
In the early 2000s, American Idol spearheaded “Idol Gives Back,” which raised millions of dollars for underprivileged children.
After the 7.0-magnitude earthquake in Haiti in 2010, the Red Cross used text messages as a way to donate money for aid.
Two years ago, the “Kony 2012” video took the Internet by storm. The video centered on African warlord Joseph Kony and his Lord’s Resistance Army. Telling the story of the children kidnapped and forced into the army, the 28-minute video reached 100 million views in less than a week. Last year the Obama administration sent U.S. Special Operations to Africa in an effort to find Kony.
Whether another organization or even the ALS Association can replicate its success is anybody’s guess, said Mr. Tempel, of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy.
“Other organizations trying to think how they might use this need to think very carefully about whether this could work for them if it’s not organic,” he said. “It has to be something that touches the organization’s mission, relates directly back, otherwise it could be seen as a gimmick and might not go anywhere.”
Despite the ice bucket challenge’s success, Mr. Tempel said: “This does not change the landscape of fundraising or the way organizations do their work,” though it does teach an important less that “social media can be a very useful tool to organizations.”
“I think for the ALS Association, one of the big questions they’re asking themselves is whether they can do this again a year from now,” Mr. Tempel said, a sentiment echoed by Ms. Heisman.
“I think the jury’s going to be out,” she said. “At some point this is going to wind down and then what’s going to happen next, what’s the next [viral campaign] going to look like. Is it next for the ALS Association or next for another charity, or is it going to be five years before something happens.”
Ms. Munk said the viral campaign has been both a windfall and a challenge the association is ready to face.
“I think that is a challenge that has been presented to us. It’s a positive challenge,” she said. “It’s clear the needle has moved as far as awareness of the disease. It’s up to us to keep that awareness level as high as it is this week and into the future.”