The #IceBucketChallenge & Irish Charities

Aisling Farrell, CEO of the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association (IMNDA) takes the Ice Bucket Challenge along with Trinity staff and politicians

Now that the Ice Bucket Challenge has cooled off (wordplay!), it’s a good time to look at the phenomenon, and the implications it had for the Irish Motor Neuron Disease Association and Irish charities as a whole.

I had a really interesting conversation with Maeve Leahy from IMNDA about the viral success of the challenge. The funds raised by this currently stand at €1.4 million and donations are still coming in.  The IMNDA also hugely increased their online support base, going from around 3,000 followers on Facebook to over 20,000.  Most importantly, Maeve says that the service users of the charity were incredibly “overwhelmed and thrilled” and that the campaign “eased isolation and created a sense of understanding towards the disease that wasn’t there before”.  While there was some criticism and negativity, it was only a very small proportion of a very positive and uplifting campaign.

Did it benefit the Irish charity sector as a whole?

I think so.  It was another step towards making charitable giving an everyday and fun activity and it engaged a huge swathe of young people.  August is a quiet time for fundraising for the majority of charities, plus the ask of a €2 text donation was very small, so it’s unlikely that it ‘cannibalised’ any other campaigns.

Significantly, it also made text giving even more familiar and ordinary.  A few years ago, the received wisdom I was hearing from many fundraisers was that text donation campaigns don’t work in Ireland. But now, with NoMakeUpSelfies, the Gavin Glynn campaign and the Ice Bucket Challenge, millions have been raised in Ireland by text donations in less than a year.

How can Irish charities reproduce it?

You can’t.

But you CAN be prepared

Simon Scriver has some good advice on his Change Fundraising Blog, making the point that it’s good fundraising practice that builds the foundation for these successes. If you have loyal, engaged supporters and a good reputation for transparency and effectiveness, you are more likely to become the charity of choice when a trend like this takes off.

Maeve from IMDNA emphasised this point too.  Many questions about transparency, effectiveness and salaries came in, and IMNDA were able to direct people to the necessary information on their website.

I would add that you need to be able to respond quickly if an opportunity like this comes up.  Make sure you are watching trends and be ready when a suitable activity springs up.  Do you have ‘influencers’ on your side that you could ask to help by participating?  The always-brilliant Beth Kanter has a useful article about this on her blog.  IMNDA kick started the campaign in Ireland by doing the challenges themselves, and then it really took off when Daithí O’Shea did the challenge on the Rose of Tralee, and Sharon Ní Bheolain did the challenge live on RTE news.

Consider how your charity would react if a similar opportunity arose. Would senior management get bogged down in sign off and internal processes? Would they be able to handle the lack of control that comes with this? Are they prepared for the negativity and criticism that is an unavoidable part of internet success? Try to have a conversation with senior management about preparing for this, just as you might prepare for humanitarian emergencies and communications crises.

Maeve from IMNDA pointed out also that having a text donation number set up helped in being able to react quickly to this trend.  If your charity doesn’t have a text donation number, you should definitely set one up – it means you won’t get slowed down by paperwork at a time when you can ill afford to, and it will come in handy for other campaigns as well.

A viral internet campaign puts huge pressure on communications staff, as they tend to cause a very concentrated burst of activity.  If such a success happens for your charity, Maeve advised that you co-opt and train other staff to help with online responses as early as possible, so communications staff don’t get overwhelmed.  Do remember that staff need to be trained – the last thing you need are social media gaffes while your organisation is in the spotlight.

You will still need serendipity on your side

I reckon two particular factors played a big part in the Ice Bucket Challenge’s viral success:

  1. The bleak summer of 2014 – silly season just didn’t happen this year; instead this summer was a barrage of what felt like exceptionally awful news.  Gaza, Syria, Isis, Ukraine and Russia, MH17- the refrain of ‘what kind of world are we living in?!’ was all over social media shortly before the Ice Bucket Challenge took off. The time was completely right for something that was both silly and kind.  The Ice Bucket Challenge made people laugh and more importantly, showed genuine human connection for a very worthwhile cause.
  2. Facebook autoplay videos – Facebook rolled out the autoplay function on videos during the summer. Prior to this feature, we would have just seen hundreds of still images of people standing in their back gardens. The autoplay function meant that we got a preview of the actions, reactions and any quirky twists that people put in their videos.

Note that the thing these two factors have in common is that they can’t be controlled.

Should your charity try to hijack the next viral that comes along?

Personally, I think you shouldn’t; aside from being unfair, the optics of trying to hop on board another charity’s bandwagon are not worth it.  A big part of the appeal of these types of trends is that they start from grassroots supporters rather than PR activity.  A cancer support charity in the UK raised £250,000 from encouraging their supporters to do the Ice Bucket Challenge for them, but received criticism over it.

 What do you think? Leave your comment below with your own thoughts on the Ice Bucket Challenge and what it means for the Irish charity sector.

[Big thanks to Maeve Leahy of IMNDA for talking to me for this blog post, and for generously sharing the learnings from the campaign for the benefit of other charities – and congratulations again to IMNDA for running such a successful campaign. You can still donate to the Ice Bucket Challenge by texting MND to 50300.]

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