Why I’m All Wet

There are few things I disdain more in my professional life than fundraising gimmicks. Charities should do good work then share the impact of their efforts with their donors. That’s how you build a strong and enduring donor base.

So imagine my surprise when my wife and I agreed to get all wet as a part of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

For those few who haven’t heard, the Ice Bucket Challenge began earlier this year as a dare between friends. You either dumped a bucket of ice cold water over your head or made a donation to a charity of your choosing. Like many folks across the nation, several months ago members of my very large family in Hawaii began accepting the challenge and posted videos to Facebook of them getting all wet. In my family, the preferred cause was breast cancer as it is an issue which has touched several of our relatives.

Frankly, I hated the whole concept when I saw the first videos. The original Ice Bucket Challenge treated charitable giving as a punishment for not accepting the challenge. It was almost as if you had to decide which was worse – getting soaked with freezing water or making a charitable gift.

Thankfully I wasn’t the only person uncomfortable with the idea of this choice between giving or getting wet. As it began spreading throughout social media, the challenge transformed into one of both giving and getting wet.

Eventually, a particularly touching story appeared in the Boston area of a former baseball player living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. That inspired professional baseball players to coalesce around the cause of ALS and many donated and dumped ice water over their heads. In turn, athletes in other professional sports began to accept the challenge. Eventually that got the attention of the media and suddenly the once generic ice bucket challenge became the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Then in mid-August, it truly exploded.

In a typical year, the ALS Association receives less than $3 million in contributions during the month of August.

For the period of August 12 through August 29, 2014, the ALS Association received contributions of $101 million. In just these past few weeks, more than three million people donated to the ALS Association that had never given to them before.

Of course, the average gift to the ALS Association is less than $30. Most of us made token gifts to participate in something fun and enjoyable. Our giving had little to do with the cause of ALS. The great challenge faced by the ALS Association is be to turn these one-time donations into ongoing relationships. To obtain meaningful and regular gifts from a donor, a charity needs to be doing good work and share stories of their effectiveness with their donors.

Raising $100 million in small donations in a little more than two weeks is incredible, but what makes this truly unprecedented is that it was completely unplanned. To borrow a phrase from my friends who’ve made a lot of money in the online world, this was completely “organic.”

There was no ingenious fundraiser who came up with the concept of the ice bucket challenge. There was no marketing professional at ALS who strategically mapped out how they could use this growing social media phenomenon to raise money. In fact, the ALS Association was completely caught off guard by this incredible wave of publicity and generosity. Foolishly, the ALS Association tried to trademark the words “ice bucket challenge” just a few days ago but quickly withdrew their claim because of the mountain of bad publicity. The irony is that when the ALS Association finally got involved in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, all they managed to do was lose some of the goodwill that developed through no actions of their own.

Yet despite my best efforts to mock this idea as silly, I have grown to absolutely love the ice bucket challenge. Regardless of the cause being supported, its ubiquity has made the challenge into a virtual communal experience for Americans. It’s something we so rarely have anymore.

A little more than 30 years ago about half of all televisions sets tuned in every night to watch Walter Cronkite give us the evening news. Forty-five million people bought Michael Jackson’s album Thriller. One-hundred-and-five million people watched the final episode of MAS*H.

Today we have more choices, and on the whole that’s a wonderful thing, but it also means that we have fewer common experiences together as one country.

The ice bucket challenge has become a shared event which involves everyone from the wealthiest leaders and most well-known celebrities to everyday Americans. Incredibly, it isn’t a staged event (like the Super Bowl) but rather a phenomenon that spread organically from one person to the next.

The ice bucket challenge is also a joyful activity that is focused on the idea of generosity. It’s an opportunity for grown men and women to be playful, all in the spirit of giving. In virtually every video you see smiles and people laughing.

All across the country you’re seeing people accepting the ice bucket challenge in a spirit of generosity, laughter and joy. Yes it’s silly, but it’s still a beautiful thing to behold.

This column by Bret Bicoy originally appeared in the Peninsula Pulse on September 4, 2014

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