What Does the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Say About Millenials as Donors - and How Effective Is It as a Long-Term Fundraising Strategy?

by Kristin Holland

By this point, you’ve probably seen your Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter feeds full of videos of friends, family, and co-workers dumping buckets (coolers, casserole dishes, mixing bowls) of ice water on their heads.

Some of them might include the hashtags #icebucketchallenge or #strikeoutALS.  This isn’t the first time nonprofits have used social media to raise dollars and awareness. In 2013, Water is Life hijacked the hashtag #FirstWorldProblems and the hugely successful social media campaign that followed brought over 1 million days’ worth of clean water to those in need.

As the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge continues to grow in popularity, and as someone who works and volunteers with the nonprofit sector day in and day out, I have to stop and wonder… is this truly the most effective way to create positive change?

First, it’s important to get some facts straight about the origins of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. The ALS Association, along with some major media outlets, have credited the origin to Peter Frates, a former Boston College baseball player who was diagnosed with ALS (or Lou Gehrig’s Disease). But early involvement in the Ice Bucket Challenge from celebrities like Matt Lauer and Martha Stewart happened before Frates became involved with the challenge. Matt Lauer actually donated to a different nonprofit.
According to Will Oremus with Slate.com, the Ice Bucket Challenge originated from a group of pro golfers daring each other to dump ice water on their heads out of pure entertainment. The charitable giving aspect was tacked on later.

All of this is not to say that the ALS Association was not extremely smart to use the Ice Bucket Challenge to its advantage. In an August 17, 2014 press release, the ALS Association reported that it has received $13.3 million in donations compared to $1.7 million during the same time period last year.

I would call any social media fundraising campaign that increases donations—especially by over $10 million—a huge success. And I am fully supportive of nonprofits finding innovative, low-cost ways to further their missions. Social media fundraising and crowdfunding can be extremely effective. Power 2 Give is a great example, used locally in OKC by Allied Arts.

So what are my hang ups with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge?

ALS Ice Bucket Challenge First and foremost, the Ice Bucket Challenge is an alternative to donating. The entire premise of the challenge is that if you don’t want to donate $100 to the organization, then you must dump ice water on your head.
Now, I realize that many people are donating in addition to completing the challenge, but many are not. I have seen far too many videos that not only fail to encourage others to donate, they don’t even mention ALS. They are completing the challenge to participate in a social media trend similar to the planking craze. Top Golf in Dallas recently posted a video of its staff completing the challenge and didn’t mention ALS. After a brave friend publicly called them out, they reposted the video with a link to the ALS website and encouraged donations.

If you’re going to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge, I encourage you to make it a worthwhile activity by researching ALS, sharing information about the disease and how others can help contribute to the organization in your video, and donating.
But I’d like to challenge you further. In my three years working in and with the nonprofit sector, I have heard my older colleagues voice concern over engaging Millennials on countless occasions. We’re seen as an impulsive generation. We jump at the opportunity to donate in the wake of a tragedy so that we can post it to our social media accounts, but any real, long-term commitment—consistent donations, volunteer time or board service—to an organization is rare. As young nonprofit professionals, we need to be aware of our oftentimes negative reputation (regardless of how untrue and undeserved it may be), and actively work to disprove it.

I challenge you to become an engaged supporter. There are over 18,000 nonprofits in Oklahoma alone doing truly impactful work in our communities. Find an organization whose mission you really care about, and commit yourself to it. Volunteer with its programs. Serve on a committee. Attend its special events. Donate.

I challenge you to become an informed donor. Be discerning with your charitable contributions. Research an organization and find out how they intend to use your donation. How much of your donation will go to programs versus overhead and administrative costs? (Side note: funding overhead is NOT a bad thing! Learn more about that here).

Nonprofit organizations today are facing social problems more immense than ever before. Solutions to these problems require funding. So by all means, participate in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, donate, and tell all your friends to donate too. But solutions to these problems also require engagement, collaboration, and innovative thinking from our generation. It’s up to us to create change, and I’m afraid that dumping ice water on your head isn’t enough.

What do you think? Did you participate in the Challenge? Did you donate? Why or why not? We're interested in your thoughts on this!