What the Ice Bucket Challenge teaches us about charity donations

5 min read

The internet, and particularly social media sites, have been awash with videos of people lifting up buckets and tipping ice-cold water on their or other people's heads. It's not due to the abnormally early Charity donations bushfire season in New South Wales, or in anticipation of the steadily rising temperatures; instead it is in aid of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

It's unlikely internet users will have avoided the phenomenon, though perhaps they may know it from the much more social media trend friendly names of #IceBucketChallenge or #StrikeOutALS.

The format is simple: tip water on your head, give some money to the ALS charity and nominate another person to do the same. The sensation quickly became viral as celebrities from around the world took part and chose their nominations – giving an interesting insight into famous friendship groups in the process.

There are around 1,300 people in Australia with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) – also referred to as motor neuron disorder, or Lou Gehrig's disease – and the campaign aims to raise awareness and funding for the global illness.

As of the end of August, Bill Gates' elaborate Ice Bucket Challenge had racked up more than 16 million YouTube views, with Charlie Sheen's alternative approach only marginally pipping him to be the most viewed.

Not all participants donate like Mr Sheen, however; public donations are widely made by using a mobile text service, where a specified amount of money can be given via a user's SMS services. 

As of August 25, the ALS Association has received a total of US $79.7 million (AUS $85.6 million), vastly increasing their capabilities to fund research and tackle the illness. Compare this with US $2.5 million collected in the same period last year and you really begin to see how much the campaign has helped ALS – as well as the many other charities that individuals have opted to give their donation to.

As good as the numbers are, they don't tell a story of a long-term solution. The ALS Association wouldn't like to see their 2015 funding dropping back to pre-challenge figures, and they won't always be able to rely on a host of celebrities to promote a similar campaign in the future.

Direct debit integration can provide funding for charities long after the fad has faded

As world-conquering as viral campaigns can seem, they don't last forever. Awareness is not a constant, it is wavering and as susceptible to memory as it is to search engine algorithms. Lessons can be learnt from other examples into the importance of turning a brief good cause into a more substantial outcome. Who, after all, remembers much of the Kony 2012 campaign, despite being one of the most viral in history, with almost 100 million YouTube views?

Improving cash flow management enables charities to offer a better service, and to make the most of a campaign's momentum by encouraging a solution that goes beyond the one-off donation. By signing up for monthly direct debit donations, donors will generate long-term and sustainable funding for their cause, providing resources and assisting a charity's future planning long after the ice has melted and the people dried off.

There is also some criticism that the online sensation concentrates on the "15 seconds of fame" more than it focuses on its ability to raise awareness and funds for charity. The ALS Association say that 1.7 million new donors have contributed since the Ice Bucket Challenge began. Charities can support these donors in proving critics wrong by using charitable trends to create a lasting effect through regular support of their chosen cause.

Setting up a branded web page for your charity will give a place to focus donation efforts. Especially for campaigns driven by social media, it can provide a significant boost to fundraising. Online donations through a branded page make up 58 per cent of online giving and are 55 per cent greater than donations received through a portal page.

We may only ever be a few months away from the next viral trend. The key for most charities will be to use different methods to give better options for donors, and ultimately to substitute an instant impact for a steady and hopefully high cash flow for those in need.