Marketing, PR & Advertising and Nonprofits

The pros and cons of nonprofit fundraising stunts

September 3, 2014
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There’s no doubt that you’ve heard about the “ice bucket challenge,” a viral phenomenon on social media and in mainstream news that has been raising awareness and a large quantity of money for the ALS Association.

ALS is amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a disease that causes progressive degeneration of the nerves in the brain and spinal column. People have known about the disease since 1939 when New York Yankees baseball player Lou Gehrig announced his diagnosis with ALS.

But of course, national attention spans are short. And there are lots of other things to think about, including many other worthy nonprofits raising money for treatments and cures of rare and common diseases.

So the ice bucket challenge became a national August surprise with its huge success at raising money. Whereas in a typical year the ALS Association may raise just over $1 million, from July 29 to Aug. 25 the ice bucket challenge is responsible for bringing in nearly $80 million, according to a news release on the ALS Association website. Along with the fundraising, there has been a corresponding re-establishment of awareness about ALS. It’s hard not to call this stunt a success.

I must say that I cringe a little at using the word “stunt,” because it implies trickery or deception in the manner of a carnival barker or snake oil salesman. I hate PR to be associated with such activity. But the literal definition of stunt includes “something unusual done to attract attention.” The ice bucket challenge fits that definition.

There are several reasons that the ice bucket challenge was a success. For one, it simply involved video. Video is a popular medium, and these days it is easy and compelling for people to shoot and share videos themselves. That leads to the second key element: participation. If ALS had created a video and asked people to share it, there might have been some success. But getting people directly involved, with a degree of personal interaction and even peer pressure, is a key factor in making the stunt go viral across social media networks and in getting mainstream media coverage.

Another key success factor is that the ice bucket challenge is organic, meaning it was started informally by someone diagnosed with the disease. The ALS Association gives credit for the ice bucket challenge to Pete Frates, a Boston college athlete, in a news release on their website. However, an article in Slate magazine points out that other ice bucket challenges pre-date Frates. Regardless of who started it, since the activity took off, the organization formalized it with a special ice bucket challenge page on its website. The key was that it was started informally and thus seems more genuine and compelling.

But there are cons to fundraising stunts as well. First, sometimes an increase in awareness can be a bad thing. As more people learn about it, more people find reasons to object. Some objections are about the ice bucket challenge itself, that it is coerced charity or that the attention is focused on the participants for personal gratification versus ALS. Others raise the point that so much money going to ALS could be diverting needed support from other worthy causes. Other complaints call into question ALS itself, such as its support of the use of embryonic stem cells in research, or the fact that an accounting has not been given of how this huge increase in cash will be used. The website Ethics Alarms has a handy rundown of these ice bucket challenge ethical concerns

Few might consider the ice bucket challenge an example of a crisis communication situation for the ALS Association. But one definition of a crisis in PR terms is increased scrutiny by the public or media. Even if it’s all positive attention, it calls for an organization to communicate quickly under the spotlight. But some of the attention as noted above is negative, and the ice bucket challenge is becoming a PR challenge for the ALS Association. They began to respond mid-August with a statement from the president and CEO addressing how the money will help them meet their mission in three specific ways.

Another problem I have had about the ice bucket challenge is that the stunt gets in the way of the message. I saw a lot of media celebrities douse themselves in order to boost their own ratings and become the story. I saw few actually insightful journalistic efforts to tell the story of ALS, the association, or one of the countless of human beings who suffer from the disease. “Raising awareness” is a bland goal — a more measurable objective such as understanding the disease, knowing what ALS does exactly, generating compassion for persons affected and other outcomes would be much better.

A final concern I have about the ice bucket challenge and stunts of this kind is sustainability. I already am seeing on my own social networks a weariness about the fundraising fad, in addition to outright opposition. While traditional nonprofit fundraisers like appeal letters, 5Ks, and annual dinners seem less creative by comparison, they tend to attract true supporters and settle in to an annual revenue stream. I may be wrong, but I don’t see the ice bucket challenge becoming an annual event with the same level of response as this year.

The ALS Association fundraising team may want to have a long strategy session when the ice bucket challenge settles down. This may have been a one-year fad, and worse, people may assume that they are now flush with cash and next year’s balance sheet could be lower than two years ago. They’ll have to find a way to engage current and new donors in meaningful ways to retain them, or they may find that the ice bucket fad has created a really cold challenge for them in the years ahead.