ALS Throws Cold Water on Outdated Fundraising Ideas

The Ice Bucket Challenge represents a radical shift in the fundraising dynamic
September 2, 2014 Updated: September 1, 2014

Thanks a lot, ALS Association. Because of you and your Ice Bucket Challenge, millions of organizations around the world are rethinking their approach to fundraising. The tried and true methods—like appeal letters, gala events, and silent auctions—have lost their luster in the face of your ridiculously simple, outrageously inexpensive, and wildly successful viral rampage. Your success makes these traditional approaches as outdated and quaint as a cup of instant coffee.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m happy for your success. But in addition to generating mega-millions for your cause, those chunks of ice are creating quite a stir among the philanthropic world. As your revenues soar, we jealously watch from the sidelines and wonder: How can we duplicate your success?

Prevailing wisdom is that your Ice Bucket Challenge represents a radical shift in the fundraising dynamic. You and all your drenched devotees have unleashed a new kind of philanthropic order. And commentators of every stripe are doing their best to dissect it.

But hold onto your ice cube trays. Is there really anything really new here? Sure, the Ice Bucket Challenge has generated a ton of money in a short time and engaged participation from school kids to CEOs. But is what underlies its success really new, or just a new take on an old idea?

At its core the Ice Bucket Challenge is a pure form of peer-to-peer fundraising. Nothing new there. Countless organizations have used similar tactics. Think of the old jail-and-bail technique, where well-to-do community leaders would have to “fundraise” themselves out of jail by calling a host of friends. More recently, Movember has generated similar support by having guys raise money and awareness for prostate cancer by growing facial hair (and turning November into the ugliest month of the year). For decades, charity events have been championed by well-known community leaders who tap their friends to buy tables, dress up, and come out in support.

Peer-to-peer fundraising is nothing new, but what is new is who is being engaged. It’s no longer the older folks with big wallets who are fundraising targets. Now, nearly anyone with a pulse is a potential donor. And the key to attracting them is easier—and seemingly different—than it used to be. Sure there are people who criticize the challenge for its perceived lack of substance or connection to the cause. But the numbers speak for themselves. And, based on my armchair analysis, here are the main points that make the Ice Bucket Challenge worth remembering:

  • It’s quick and easy. There’s no big commitment required. Is it possible that the less you ask of participants, the more likely you are to engage more of them?
  • It’s fun. Yes, it’s oddly enjoyable to watch someone get doused with ice water. And for those who want to up the ante, the challenge brings out the creative side of everyone from Patrick Stewart to Bill Gates.
  • Anyone can do it. It’s open to almost all incomes, ages, and walks of life and no special skill or equipment is required. Plus, the campaign originated with average folks, not the association. The grass-roots origin only adds to the appeal—and makes it devilishly hard to duplicate.

As organizations seek to attract a new base of donors, they should remember these important lessons. Donors want to be engaged, but they don’t always want to do it in hotel banquet rooms eating chicken and bidding on spa packages.

Just one more thing to keep in mind. The motivation behind the challenge was to help a person suffering from ALS. The person who got the ice bucket rolling wanted to do something creative to help bring attention to a relatively unknown cause. The good news is that it only takes one adventurous soul to come up with a new way to inspire and engage a whole continent.

So thanks ALS for pouring cold water on some of our outdated fundraising methods. Thanks for inspiring us to consider something new, fun, easy, and inclusive. And thanks for reminding us that the best ideas might come from outside of our organizations. Thanks. A lot.

Joni Avram helps donors, businesses, and nonprofit enterprises gain credibility, build influence, and grow support through effective marketing and engagement strategies. Portions of this article first appeared in You can follow Joni on Twitter @joniavram. This article previously published on

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Joni Avram