What can the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Teach Health Researchers about Fundraising?

By: Society of Behavioral Medicine | Published: September 10, 2014

By now you’ve probably dumped water on your head or have seen most of your Facebook friends do it, all in the name of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) research.

In the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge, people use social media to nominate their friends, family members, co-workers, and others to either donate to the association or dump ice water on themselves (many have done both). Those nominated are then tasked with nominating others for the challenge. The challenge went viral quickly, as nominations and videos of water-dumping dominated Facebook. About 3 million people have donated, and, as of early September, the association had brought in $109.1 million (up from only about $3 million during the same time period last year).

While this is wonderful news for the ALS Association and the estimated 30,000 Americans suffering from the disease, the challenge raises several questions for health researchers who are always looking for funding and who are eager to learn from the challenge’s immediate success. Chief among those questions is whether or not such a fundraising effort is repeatable or sustainable.

On the one hand, the challenge has brought in lots of new donors and has truly engaged the social-media-savvy younger generation. But, on the other hand, those who donate through such viral, social media campaigns are not very likely to become dedicated, repeat donors. Future attempts to replicate the challenge may be ignored or seen as annoying, as well.

The focus of the challenge has also often been on the water—not the disease. That raises another key question: Has the public actually learned anything about ALS? They may have learned about freezing water and taunting their friends, but do they know what the disease is? Who it impacts? The status of a cure? Successful research fundraising achieves a broad reach and generates dollars—but it must also educate and spread accurate information.

It’s also interesting to note that other charities have used dumping ice water on people as a fundraising mechanism in the past. Despite that fact, the activity is now associated pretty exclusively with ALS, and the ALS Association even sought to patent it. That begs the question, how did the challenge become so entwined with ALS? Is that sort of affiliation possible to replicate using another video-worthy activity?

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