I used to be a fundraiser, and while I don’t work in development (the fancy word for fundraising) anymore, the theory behind philanthropy and donor motivation still interests me greatly. So when I saw the backlash for the #icebucketchallenge beginning (specifically Will Oremus’ “Take the ‘No Ice Bucket’ Challenge”), I wasn’t surprised, but I do think it deserves to be addressed, and frankly, shot down.
The challenge represents what the development community likes to call “peer to peer fundraising.” A successful peer to peer campaign is the unicorn of non-profit organizations; I cannot even try to quantify the hours I have spent in meetings talking about how we, the development staff, can motivate the Board of Directors to ask their friends to support the organization. Fundraisers may be able to build strong ties to the individuals who choose to identify themselves as connected to the organization (Boards, subscribers, volunteers, etc.) but those people have their own networks that we simply can’t access. Because even if we knew who they were, it would be really weird and invasive to call them out of the blue and ask them for money. All of that disposable income! So close! But so far. Peer to peer fundraising is the answer, and that’s not just industry speculation; there’s a 2011 study in the Journal of Public Economics that confirms peer fundraising increases both the likelihood and the size of a charitable gift.
Now, don’t get me wrong, peer to peer fundraising is also kind of awkward and hard. Ask anyone who’s ever run a charity 5K and spent 2 months haranguing their friends on Facebook about it. The Ice Bucket Challenge, with its performative, truth or dare format turns the ask into a game and an event.
Most people are familiar with the idea of charity galas, and I’m sure you’ve wondered, or heard someone wonder “why throw this big, expensive party? Why doesn’t everyone just make a donation the same as the ticket price, and then it would be all donation with no overhead.”
Yeah, well. That would be awesome! Galas are really expensive and sometimes the difference between gross revenue and net revenue is really disheartening. People should just give that money straight to the charity in question. But if people always did what they should do, well, 75% of charitable non-profits probably wouldn’t even need to exist in the first place. Ultimately, expensive galas bring money to charitable organizations that would not have otherwise been donated.
If I had to condense the art of fundraising into one description, it is the art of appealing to the better angels of our nature without having unrealistic expectations of our flaws. Here are things I learned: 1) people want to help 2) most people will not give anywhere close to the maximum level of their ability unless they are challenged to and 3) people love a gimmick.
The Ice Bucket Challenge is a beautiful gimmick because it gives the ALS Association access to an ever expanding network of people and utilizes their peers to make the ask. I watched Bill Gates participate today, at the behest of Mark Zuckerberg, and go on to challenge Elon Musk, Ryan Seacrest, and Chris Anderson. Perhaps all of those people were already donors, but if they weren’t, I guarantee that the Development office of the ALS Association would not have been able to solicit them for a gift. Not because those people aren’t philanthropically minded (Bill Gates is, for example, one of the greatest philanthropists of all time) but because they are, as people with great fame and resources, extraordinarily protected from random people asking them for money (even for good causes).
The numbers speak for themselves. In the last month, the amount of money has increased by a factor of 50 compared to the amount received in the same period last year. A factor of 50! Think about your salary. Now multiply it by 5. That’s a lot! Now multiple that by 10. That’s a whole hell of a lot.
Are there people who don’t donate when they do the challenge? Yes! Are there people who still don’t have any idea what ALS is? YES! But there is no such thing as a 100% successful fundraising campaign. In fact, acquiring new donors to a non-profit is both incredibly difficult and prohibitively expensive. As it most things, it costs money to make money, even donated, and reaching new donors has the worst Return on Investment of any fundraising effort. A 5% return on a new donor mailing would be considered outrageously successful and it would cost the organization a lot of money. It’s a necessary evil, because without new donors, the donor base will eventually erode, but it is a bitter pill to swallow. This campaign costs the ALS Foundation zero dollars. People are doing the work for them. So, if only 50% or even 20% of the people participating actually get what it’s about, the alternative is way worse. 20% of the internet is A LOT.
So look, grumbly people of the internet, you can complain about the way people should be giving money, or you can be glad that, annoying method or not, people are giving money.