Breaking the Rules: How the Ice Bucket Challenge Hurts NonProfits

Doing_the_ALS_Ice_Bucket_Challenge_(14927191426) As a strong advocate for using digital tools to engage potential advocates online, I probably should be more supportive of efforts like the Ice Bucket Challenge – the fundraising initiative that has gone viral. Many of my colleagues talk positively about it, and a few have even participated

However, like several of my fellow Chicago Now bloggers….I’m not enthusiastic about it. In fact, I think it’s rather harmful for charities and other non-profits.

“But Gordon,” You’re probably thinking to yourself. “Isn’t it great that funds are being raised to help cure a disease? Isn’t it great that we are also raising awareness about an issue via social media? And ultimately, who gets hurt?”

My answer is….non-profits. And here, in convenient bullet point form, are several reasons why the Ice Bucket Challenge may be a great idea, but has some severe limitations:

  • Building Awareness is Good: Building a Base of Advocates is Better – As a nice, visually engaging stunt, dumping a bucket of water on yourself is a great ploy….but for any cause, you need more than just a nice video. Funding is good, but there is further advocacy work to be done on the legislative, family, and community levels. “Raising awareness” doesn’t do anything other than bring attention – and what people with ALS require is action. (I think it’s safe to say – a disease named after a major athlete has already “raised awareness” on some point). Many non-profits need more than just a momentary glance – they need people to advocate on their behalf (as well as volunteers to help complete needed tasks).
  • Research Doesn’t Improve When You Throw Money At It – In fact, research is a long, meticulous process of figuring out what works and what needs improvement. If there were a room of researchers waiting for money to simply begin, it makes sense. Many nonprofits need funding, but hoping for a magic lump sum is….well, it’s the equivalent of purchasing a lottery ticket. You may get lucky, but it only comes after a lot of work….and long-term investment.
  • Now Everyone Will Be Doing It – Already, there has been one case of potential “cause-jacking” of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Coming up with a great idea that turns into a movement is rare, but the temptation of “mission creep” – drifting away from a nonprofit’s mission to pursue potential resources – can be potentially damaging to organizational efforts and the morale of its staff.
  • Smart Content Strategy Always Trumps “Viral” – One of the things that smart nonprofits know is that they tailor their content – every post on Twitter, blogs, Instagram, Facebook, or any other social media channel – to the strengths of that particular channel. There will always be room for smart, strategic engagement of potential advocates, but nonprofits can do better than something that seems based solely on peer pressure with little room for positive follow up. (Or in other words – how many people who took the Ice Bucket Challenge didn’t donate).

For those of you who have causes you would like to promote – or even if you work for a nonprofit and are looking to get the word out – I have come up with my own “viral” challenge. I’m calling it….the Funny Cat Challenge.

Here’s how it works: If you have a reaction to this post, please feel free to provide your reaction – positive, negative, neutral, however you feel – but include a funny cat video – simply search funny cat videos on YouTube and you have a variety to choose from. Here’s a great example:


Then,  distribute your post via social media using the #funnycatchallenge hashtag….and please be sure to make a donation to the charity of your choice. (No pressure either way).

Some of you will be saying to yourself, “But Gordon – all you’re really doing is driving hits to your website! You’re not really doing anything to help nonprofits”

My point exactly….although I would argue that posting funny cat videos is always a worthwhile endeavor.

So what do you think – do you think that the Ice Bucket Challenge can hurt nonprofits, or is it just another clever idea? Please leave comments below (and please remain civil – we do moderate this blog’s comments). In addition, you are always welcome to visit and join us on Facebook, or contact us directly – information can be found on our About page.

And as always, thanks for reading!

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