The Message of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge for Other Nonprofits

earth iceCould anyone have predicted that this would be the next big fundraising  strategy to go viral and bring in big bucks? You’ve by now no doubt heard about the ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) Association‘s challenge, in which social media participants dare friends to either videotape themselves being doused by a bucket of ice water or donate $100 to ALS research. (Doing both is fine, too.)

Who wants ice over their head, after all? (Brrrr.) And how many people have been personally affected by ALS, a disease that — while awful — affects only about two in 100,000 people, which isn’t exactly a recipe for fundraising success?

But this one somehow caught on. The likes of Bill Gates, Jennifer Lopez, Mark Zuckerberg, Lena Dunham, George Takei, LeBron James, Oprah Winfrey, and Justin Bieber have all taken the challenge. As of this morning, it had brought in nearly $23 million — enough to have Forbes magazine writing about what the organization will do with all the money.

Why did it work — and how can other organizations replicate it? My analysis = Embrace people’s narcissism. Critics of the challenge complain that it produces “slacktivism,” in which people advertise their interest in a good cause but don’t actually do anything about it. But that’s turning out to be not such a bad thing, if some people do do something about it, namely donate and spread the word.

Facebook, Twitter, and other social media outlets are essentially places where people try to make their friends think that they’re doing interesting and exciting things all the time. (No one is convinced, but never mind.)

Yet now that we’ve all Facebooked and Tweeted the contents our latest travel photos and breakfast images a million times over, everyone from ordinary mortals to celebrities, is looking for new content. Preferably content that shows the person in a good light. So back to the ALS challenge: A video that’s easy and cheap to produce and that depitcs someone as humorous, slightly daring, and ready to support a worthy cause, fits the bill on many levels.

Now we just need to replicate that formula for the next big thing. Hmmm.