Last summer we saw an incredible phenomenon in the nonprofit sector—the ALS Association received close to $115M from 2.6M donors in a record one-month period. It was faster and greater than any such social fundraising campaign in the number of donors, from all walks of life—from President Bush, Bill Gates, media personalities and CEOs to teachers, students and more.

The Ice Bucket Challenge, which started as a grassroots fundraising campaign, quickly grew to dominate all major media outlets in a way we’ve never seen before.

Before last summer’s #IceBucketChallenge, awareness for ALS was relatively limited to families and friends of those affected. Now, education for the cause has spread in a way that organization’s couldn’t have planned for, and it happened without having to spend a single dollar on media buys. This global movement is a game-changer for our industry, and an incredible success story of the power of social media as an equalizer.

Here are key insights gleaned from the campaign that shed light on what that campaign means for the future of fundraising and philanthropy:

Replication is Futile

If you think you can replicate the exact same campaign or tactics, you’ll be your wasting time. Instead, focus on creating a culture that embraces millennials and engages with constituents on their terms.

Find ways to empower your supporters to be the voice of your cause.

By allowing them to be authentic in their messaging and  recognizing them for their participation in conversations online, you’re able to nurture a community of social advocates. More than any other event in the history, this campaign gave food for thought to many who were critics of slacktivism and clicktivism.

The Times They are a Changin!

In the last decade, with the growth of social media marketing and engagement, we’ve seen a shift in how funds are raised, the average age of donors and the average size of donations.

According to Blackbaud, online donations accounted for 6.7% of all charitable contributions made in the US in 2014. 

Although this number may seem small, Blackbaud also found that the average online donation was $146.  In terms of who is giving online, these donors tend to be younger than the offline donor population (meaning they are under the age of 65; the offline donor population is much older); wealthier (higher household incomes); less loyal (lower retention rates than offline donors) and very likely to switch to offline giving (32% switch from online to offline).

While traditional fundraising still accounts for a great majority of all funds raised, online fundraising is continuing to inch upwards and this trend is expected to continue given the ease of giving and increased efficiencies on the back-end with integrated donation and donor management tools. We expect this to result in better retention and cultivation of donors round the year.

Focus on Trends, not on Specific Tactics

Instead of focusing on the tactics of the #IceBucketChallenge, focus your perspective on the trend and what it represents—a huge shift. Think about IceBucketChallenge, BringBackourGirls, Humans of New York, HeforShe and more—the trend is to focus on is the democratization of giving and being inclusive of fundraising mechanisms beyond the galas and events. It’s about mobilizing more donors.

The future is crowdfundraising.

This means lower program and fundraising costs. Since your organization is no longer limited to spending a great deal on galas and events in order to raise funds, you’re able to use your resources in more strategic and impactful ways. Incorporate social media strategies that empower and motivate your constituents to fundraise on your behalf, relieving your organization of high overhead and fundraising expenses.

It Takes a Village!

According to Barbara Newhouse, in an interview with Beth Kanter, it takes a strong collaborative of partners and technology infrastructure to make a feat like this possible. Blackbaud provided the fundraising platform, which was able to seamlessly scale from processing a few thousand dollars to a $11M dollars a day at the height of the campaign. Even an hour or two of downtime or crash in technology could have throttled or derailed the campaign.

The organization has pulled together a brain trust of advisers – Blackbaud, Porter Novelli (PR), Charity Dynamics, and other consultants and experts to help formulate and deploy an engagement and retention strategy. 

Decentralization of Power

The campaign was not owned or driven by the ALS Association; they got behind it and supported it. They didn’t make an attempt to co-opt the movement or rigidly control it. They allowed the campaign to take shape organically, supporting it just enough but not to the point of stifling it.

According to an interview by Peter Panepento with Lance Slaughter, chief chapter relations and development officer at ALS Association, the ALS Association saw itself as a vehicle for helping to tell the story about ALS and the effort to find effective treatments. They didn’t try to take ownership of the campaign but instead championed the efforts of those who started it and provided potential supporters with tools that helped them understand the cause.

Tapping into their partner networks, the ALS Association was able to scale to meet demand. They called upon mail houses and call-centers, and relied heavily on their online giving solution from Blackbaud to ensure they were able to manage the massive influx of support.  As Henry Timms points out, the future and the new power in social change is decentralization and turning it over to the community. Letting go is now an act of power and strength, and control is a symbol of weakness.

New power operates differently, like a current. It is made by many. It is open, participatory, and peer-driven. It uploads, and it distributes. Like water or electricity, it’s most forceful when it surges. The goal with new power is not to hoard it but to channel it.

Cause is Greater than Host Organization

As was evident in #IceBucketChallenge and #SFBatkid, the focus is now on the constituents and the cause itself and the organization is secondary. As is the case in successful cause marketing campaigns, the spotlight was on the cause but not the mechanism or the medium.

This speaks to always focusing your messaging on the impact your nonprofit has and the people that are affected by it, not on how your nonprofit will affect the change or the focus and mechanism of your programs. Talk about how you enable people to be the change they want to see in the world and not about who you are or your mechanism of change. After all, that is what the social impact and change sector is all about—providing people an opportunity to be the change they want to see in the world through giving, volunteering and being part of the solution.

Join us at the Leadership Salon hosted by Social Media for Nonprofits to be a part of the robust conversation about how we can partner together and embrace the new era of fundraising and cause awareness powered by people and technology. The conversation will feature our VP of Philanthropy and Corporate Citizenship, Rachel Hutchisson, Barbara Newhouse, the CEO of ALS Association and Stefania Pomponi, an award winning blogger and CEO of Clever Girls Collective in a conversation with Ritu Sharma, CEO of Social Media for Nonprofits on April 13th from 4:00 – 6:00 PM in the heart of Silicon Valley.

Icebucket 2


Ritu Sharma is the CEO of Social Media for Nonprofits, an organization bringing social media education to nonprofits worldwide through signature one-day conference series, webinars, content and online learning. She speaks frequently around the world on a variety of topics in the nonprofit and social media spheres with a passion for effecting social change through social technologies. She writes a blog at the Huffington Post on the intersection of social media, social change and leadership.

Get nonprofit articles, best practice advice, fundraising ideas and invaluable industry reports and webinars delivered for free!