Nonprofits Should Kick the Urge to Stage 'The Next Ice Bucket Challenge'

The Ice Bucket Challenge may be fading into memory as the feel-good fad of the summer of 2014, but it is still very much alive in the minds of charity leaders who want to emulate its success.

But let me pour cold water on the idea that nonprofits should be applying lessons from the Ice Bucket Challenge to their own social-media strategies.

At its surface, the Ice Bucket Challenge offers a textbook example of how a small network of supporters can leverage the full power of the social Internet. A supporter comes up with a clever idea that plays great on video, posts the video to Facebook, and challenges his friends to follow suit. The Internet explodes and the charity raises a ton of money and attention.

It's a great story -- and a great win for the ALS Association, which raised more than $100-million this summer.

Now, a month after the Ice Bucket Challenge hit its high-water mark, it seems everyone in the field is trying to create the next social-media fundraising sensation. We’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out what other charities and foundations can learn from this effort.

Here’s the thing, though: the Ice Bucket Challenge is an outlier. It’s the “Gangnam Style” of viral fundraising. It can’t be recreated. And, even if it could be, it’s the network-building equivalent of winning the lottery. There’s so much money and attention coming in all at once, it’s almost impossible for the organization to be properly prepared to effectively manage the relationships – let alone the money.

Philanthropic professionals should instead be focusing their attention on building networks that last. That approach is not as sexy as what we saw this summer. And it’s not going to grab a lot of headlines. But the most successful networks are those that are built over time. They measure their growth incrementally – not in big waves.

Instead of being like Psy, who exploded like an internet supernova and is now bound to be fondly remembered as a one-hit wonder, we should be aspiring to be The Black Keys – an act that started with a small but passionate following and grew gradually into stardom.

For those working in the field, it means we need to be vigilant in managing expectations. We need to make sure our boards and top executives understand that they shouldn’t be expecting viral growth. They should instead be expecting to see tightly connected networks that grow slowly but have strong roots.

Photo attribution: By Anthony Quintano from Hillsborough, NJ, United States (Mission Accomplished - ALS Ice Bucket Challenge) [CC-BY-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons