The Ice Bucket Challenge: new paradigm or old trick?

There’s been a lot chatter about the ice bucket challenge and whether this wildly successful fundraiser will ring in a new order for the nonprofit marketplace.  An informal poll by Philanthropy News Digest showed 47 percent of respondents think it represents “something new in fundraising.”

At first glance, it looks like a new approach. It certainly tosses a lot of received wisdom out the window. It doesn’t 'demonstrate need.'  It doesn't use 'performance-based measures.' It doesn’t even 'tell a story' -- the donor communication du jour. So, yes, it challenges some of our basic assumptions.

But on closer examination, we can see that it actually uses several tried-and-true techniques. They’ve emerged in a slightly different form, but they should be familiar to many of us.

  • Good brand name. The ice bucket challenge leverages the name recognition of a well-established, respected organization. ALS has a good reputation, they are well-known in the health circles. That counts for a lot. Even if you know nothing about the organization, you’ve probably heard of this devastating disease.
  • Friends asking friends. Now we call it peer-to-peer fundraising, but it’s a well-established principle: solicitation is most successful when it takes place between two people who know each other and who run in the same circles. You don’t see bosses challenging employees. Not cool, right?
  • Challenge campaign.  It taps into our competitive streak and gives us a chance to be part of a team. Almost every organization has seen this work at one point or another. Donors unresponsive to regular pleas for funds all of the sudden jump on board when it’s a matching campaign.

One more positive note -- in an era when nonprofits are tempted to invest in expensive things like target analytics and the latest fundraising software, it’s refreshing to see a highly successful fundraising activity just take off on its own.