Mixing a Successful Fundraising Cocktail: Success of the Ice Bucket Challenge

Since going viral the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has raised an unprecedented $82 million (to date), nearly $80 million ...

Since going viral the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has raised an unprecedented $82 million (to date), nearly $80 million more than the same period last year. These are enviable results in the history of fundraising, by any accountancy. The ice bucket challenge will be remembered as a legendary campaign, perhaps one that even finances a cure for a horrible disease. The funds continue to roll in, and we’re all still cheering for the ALS Association’s doused inductees. The ingredients of this campaign cocktail are clearly all top-shelf. And, as we all sober up (and perhaps dry off) from the success of the bucket campaign, it’s time to consider, “What made the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ so successful?” What worked?

Here’s your fundraising bucket list:

Keep it Simple

“Donate or douse!” That’s the entire campaign. There’s no dinner, no response card, no environmentally wasteful flyer followed by a glitzy envelope bearing the unavoidable invitation: just a simple challenge over a friendly channel (Facebook) frequented by people who, for the most part, have the means to make a modest, or even generous contribution. The prospective donor, approached by a friend or loved one has a simple choice: contribute or make a public spectacle of yourself and film it. Giving is easier than making a video. (In my case, giving is easier than uploading my video – which is why we need teenagers.) And it would appear that, in most cases, those challenged both donated and doused, which makes the campaign all the more successful – it’s progression is viral. Support A by doing B and/or C; that’s simple.

For your cocktail shaker: The less complicated your campaign activity is, the better.

Make it Fun

The best fundraisers are “friend-raisers.” Encouraging your friends to join you in supporting a cause provides them the opportunity to lift themselves up, in addition to attracting new converts to the nonprofit. In the case of the ice bucket challenge, the appeal is fun and the -raising, be it fundraising or friend-raising, is secondary to the appeal of the campaign. People who’ve never heard of ALS nor learned anything about it since being challenged still doused and donated! Why? Because the campaign’s appeal is purely fun! And it’s not just because a bunch of celebrities participated in it (though surely that helped). The dousing invited creativity and the embrace of community. What creativity is involved in pouring cold water over your head? View one of the Ice Bucket Challenge clip rolls on YouTube and you’ll see.

For your cocktail shaker: Find a way for existing and potential donors to have fun while funding your cause!

Use Social Media the Way It’s Intended

Facebook enables ordinary people to share personal information with their friends, and often reconnect with old friends, by displaying their personal “stuff” on a public platform. The ice bucket challenge is successful across this and other channels because social media was designed specifically for sharing “stuff”. FB built its empire upon recordings of marriage proposals gone awry, cats purring, slips and falls at weddings, links to prescient articles etc. Posting a video of yourself while inverting a bucket of ice water over your head works on this medium. Contrast this with all of the things that don’t get good traction on FB – invitations to miscellaneous events, groups you don’t want to join, etc. and you get the sense that the latter items are all sales pitches as opposed to personal appeals to connect with someone. Social media is for socializing, not soliciting.

For your cocktail shaker: Build your campaign around the idea that friends invite and share information with other friends.

Identify a Meta-Message

“ALS is bad.” That’s all anyone needs to know when challenged by a friend to join the bucket brigade. When thinking about your organization, try to extract the overarching meta-message from your mission statement, making it as plain and easily transmittable as possible. The point is, identify something about your organization’s mission that everyone can agree with. “We make Jews” for day schools is a concentrated version of mission statements about “nurturing schools” that offer “differentiated instruction” in a “holistic Jewish environment.” Figure out what your meta-message is. Is it something that everyone can get on board with? If so, you’ve found your overarching theme to anchor your campaign.

For your cocktail shaker: Align your campaign to a potent meta-message.

Supporters Recruit Donors

I’m so-and-so and I challenge Ploni (my family member, friend, colleague, comrade-in-arms, celebrity crush) to do the ALS ice bucket challenge. It’s more meaningful if the invitation comes from someone you admire and respect. The bucket challenge went viral because each individual invited two or three people who were likely to take up the cause because they are familiar to each other and on the same “level”. I invited my daughter and two friends; Bill Gates challenged Elon Musk and Ryan Seacrest. Like all good fundraising, the best asks are peer-to-peer.

For your cocktail shaker: Design your campaign around the idea that friends recruit friends.

No Penalty for Not Donating

You can ignore your friend’s Facebook challenge altogether, but because of the social aspect (and all the previous bucket list items), I believe many, many people chose to douse themselves. And while many people contributed in support of the ALS Association, there are, I’m sure, people who used the dousing as an out to conserve their hard earned cash. And what do they get for not donating? They earn virtually the same “celebrity” as those who did donate (and douse). The dousers-not-donors help to advance the cause and are given credit for having done so. Further, there’s every reason to believe that dousers are more inclined to donate in the future because of their newly acquired familiarity, however superficial, with the nonprofit. There’s no downside to giving people a respectable out if they really don’t want to or cannot afford to make a contribution. Offer them an opportunity to be a friend of the organization.

For your cocktail shaker: Make friends, not enemies.

With a Twist

Good bartenders put a personal spin on each cocktail, mixing each to appeal to the culture of their club/clientele. The aforementioned six bucket list items, when combined in just the right proportions, will satisfy your community. Experiment with the mix – the result shouldn’t be shocking like a bucket of ice water over the head. Invite some of your trusted inner circle volunteers to a “tasting” of the mixes you’re considering, to fine tune the “taste.” Eventually you’ll develop a recipe that’s certain to make most people happy and keep them coming back for more.


Mixing a Successful Fundraising Cocktail: Success of the Ice Bucket Challenge, August 31, 2014, eJP, by Lev Herrnson

Dashboard Confessional: The Value of a Nonprofit Self-Reporting Tool

The issue of how much nonprofits should spend on fundraising has been a topic of heated discussion for a long time, a...

The issue of how much nonprofits should spend on fundraising has been a topic of heated discussion for a long time, and has given rise to several watchdog groups, such as the Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance, Charity Watch, Charity Navigator, and others. The aim of these groups is to help prospective donors see how much of their money goes to programming and how much is spent on fundraising. Recently, the Nonprofit Federation of the Direct Marketing Association (DMANF) established a new dashboard tool to allow nonprofit organizations to self-report on their fundraising expenses. The watchdog groups swiftly responded, saying the tool is ultimately meaningless.

The Nonprofit Federation is the nonprofit arm of the Direct Marketing Association, a trade association “dedicated to advancing and protecting responsible data-driven marketing.” Last year, the DMANF Ethics Committee and the Advisory Council published a set of fundraising principles, and this new dashboard tool is based on some of the assumptions inherent in the new principles. One of the basic principles is that fundraising and management in general cost money. The principles also suggest that most of the money raised by nonprofits should be applied towards fulfilling the stated mission. So far, there is no disagreement with the watchdog groups, although DMANF does not give guidance as to what an acceptable percentage spent on fundraising might be. (BBB Wise Giving Alliance, for example, suggests no more than 35 percent should be spent on fundraising.)

The real divergence is on the issue of time. The BBB and others measure spending and income annually, while DMANF says that an examination of spending over the course of three or more years provides a better look. Their argument is that the costs to acquire a new donor are relatively high and only pay off over time, as the donor moves to making annual gifts that increase in size. Taken over time, the initial cost to acquire the donor is mitigated. As a result, the dashboard tool asks for three years of information, and so can demonstrate trends.

The dashboard, which comes in the form of a downloadable PDF where information can be filled in, saved, and recorded online, invites the nonprofit to self-report information for the past three years about the mission, total revenue, the number of constituents served, program expenditure, expenditure to acquire new donors, the number of new donors, and more.

Charity Navigator’s Sandra Miniutti, in an interview by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, commented that there is no “independent” oversight of the information being provided in the dashboard. Moreover, it hides how much donors are actually giving, meaning that a lot of money may have been spent to acquire donors who stay at very small giving levels. Therefore, the dashboard seems to have been “written for the groups that oversolicit,” according to Charity Watch’s Dan Borochoff.

Essentially, the DMANF believes the dashboard tool is more reflective of the real expenses associated with fundraising, and then leaves it up to the prospective donor to determine if they are comfortable with the ratios and the trends over time. The watchdogs are saying there must be analysis of the information in order for donors to get any real value from the report. However, the watchdogs themselves often differ completely in judgment of the same nonprofit. As NPQ has reported, one nonprofit—the Wounded Warriors Project—received a poor rating, a decent rating, and a high rating from three different watchdog groups.

There is something commonsensical about a tool that gives quick and easy access to basic information, allowing a prospective donor the chance to review it and make up his or her own mind. However, it is valid to criticize that tool for not providing information about the number of donors at varying giving levels, whether they have increased their gifts, and other related information that would justify acquisition costs. Perhaps, in the end, this new tool needs a bit of refinement.—Rob Meiksins

Mark Vanderbeck is the CEO of ACTS Retirement-Life Communities, which operates 23 continuing care facilities across eight states. These communities serve a total of 8,500 residents, and Vanderbeck says that their consultation has helped him enormously over the years.

Here, he recalls the first time he realized what a depth of wisdom he had at his fingertips:

“There was an early contract which was still in force that made life, especially in the 1980s, almost impossible. Any increases in a given year of the residents’ fees were limited to five percent of the original monthly fee. So it’s not just five percent of the current fee, but of the original fee. So here we are, sitting in the late ’80s, with inflation of 16 to 18 percent. Over time, this community was going to be in dire straits, even though anybody walking by would see this beautiful community and not see the financial problems.”

At that time, the head of the residents’ financial committee was the former chancellor of the New York State University system.

“I went to him and he understood very well what the problem was…. We had several conversations and you know, ultimately, he said, ‘Mark, you can’t keep this as something that’s a management problem. This is ultimately a resident problem.’

“At that time in my life, there was a tendency to keep certain things [quiet]—you wouldn’t necessarily fully communicate certain kinds of issues. He encouraged me very strongly to come up with a plan. It was called the Trustees Plan and it gave people the opportunity to pay at market levels and it was communicated that this was needed.”

Vanderbeck says that this formative experience led him to a deep commitment to transparency.—Ruth McCambridge

Dashboard Confessional: The Value of a Nonprofit Self-Reporting Tool, August 28, 2014, Nonprofit Quarterly, by Rob Meiksins

Stay (Mission) Focused: A Simple Tool to Help You Save Time and Speed Up Your Organization

If you're like me, 24 hours is more than enough time to get everything done that you want to get done in a day. A...

If you're like me, 24 hours is more than enough time to get everything done that you want to get done in a day. And a five-day work week? That's two days too many. And money? it ain't no thing. There's more than enough to fund all the events, initiatives, and programs I want to do.

Wait. That doesn't sound right.

Most of us are both time- and budget-strapped. We want to stay focused on our mission, but, try as we may, it seems there is always more to do than there is time to do it. Yet, the people we serve and the funders who underwrite our efforts expect us to produce results.

So, what's a time- and cash-strapped nonprofit to do?

Here’s an answer: Automate time-consuming, but necessary processes using modern technology.

How Much Time Did Routine Tasks Take Up Last Week?

Take a second and think about some of the routine tasks your organization does - entering data into systems, transferring that data between systems, getting approvals, promoting content through social channels, etc.

How many hours did your organization spend on those activities last week? Last month? Last year? For example, at, we spend time each week on:

•Managing our social media platforms
•Finding content to write about
•Tracking & managing our content calendar
•Curating content relevant to our audience(s)
•Tracking events around Lansing and consolidating them into a single, comprehensive calendar
•Aligning our team around our various organizational goals

The list goes on.

I'm sure you do some (if not, most) of these things in your organization. You know how much work it is. Maybe you avoid these things precisely because it's too much work.

There's A System for Everything - and That's the Problem

So much of the work involved in the tasks described above requires managing multiple systems. For instance, at StartupLansing, we use Trello, Hipchat, Google Drive, Hootsuite, and other tools to accomplish the tasks I mentioned. Each of these systems excels at a specific thing: Trello makes it really easy to work on projects together; Google Drive makes it easy to collaborate on documents; and Hootsuite makes it easy to manage social media.

The problem is that these systems do not natively interact with each other. This leads to redundant work. For example, we use Trello to manage our social media calendar:

As a team, we brainstorm the content we want to share, assign specific tasks to individuals to optimize it and, when the content is ready to be shared, I approve it by dragging the content to the "Approved" column.

This is fantastic for collaboration.

But what about when we want to get the content into, say, Facebook? What should we do? Copy and paste the content into posts? Maybe, if there's only one or two posts per day. But what about Twitter? We typically post 5-9 times/day - should we copy and paste 45-50 pieces of content per week into these platforms? At what time(s)?

You can see how this starts to become onerous, quickly.

Enter Hootsuite. This platform allows users to bulk-upload content to social media platforms for distribution at pre-specified times. All one need do is upload a spreadsheet with data in a specific format, and the content will be published accordingly.

Great. We have a good collaboration tool (Trello) and an efficient way to upload our content (Hootsuite).

Here's the problem...they don't talk to each other, so we still have to copy and paste data from Trello to Hootsuite.

Or do we?

Enter Web Automation

The problem of having systems interact with each other is particularly acute in the modern era. There is software to accomplish almost every task you can imagine. Too often, however, they do not interact with each other.

Tools like and have emerged precisely to solve that problem. Think of these tools as behaving like old-fashioned switchboard operators — they connect two parties who want to interact.

For example, to solve my social media problem, I use Zapier to send approved Facebook posts to a Google Spreadsheet that we can use to do a single upload to Hootsuite.

Thus, we get the benefit of scheduling our social media in advance, with almost no human effort spent on the task. Instead, our time is spent on finding good content to curate and (trying) to write clever content for our audience (our mission).

Seven Simple Steps

Setting this up is really easy and can be done in just a few steps. For instance, to connect Trello to Google Drive, we simply do the following:

1. Select the two systems we want to have interact with each other

2. Authenticate the first account

(Disclaimer: the reason this says "Cognite Labs Trello" is because my company owns the Trello account)

3. Authenticate the second account

4. Tell the system what to do with the first account

In this case, I tell the system to use the StartupLansing Social Media Calendar board and to "trigger" when new activity happens on the "Approved" list.

5. Tell the system what to do with the second account

Here, I tell the system I want to create a new row in a Google spreadsheet when the activity on Trello is triggered. I specify how fields on the spreadsheet ought to be mapped to Trello.

6. Test it and make sure it works

To make sure you set up the recipe correctly, you can test it before you turn it on.

7. Turn it on!

Once you are satisfied with the test, then turn it on and watch your non-value added work decrease!

So Many Use Cases

I just highlighted a single use case above, but I use recipes for different things:

•Promoting events on Twitter as soon as they are added to the StartupLansing calendar (GCal to Twitter)
•Creating Facebook events when we add a new event to the StartupLansing event calendar (GCal to Facebook)
•Customizing Facebook posts when we publish something new on the blog (Wordpress to Facebook)
•Saving content I read on the web and want my team to curate (Pocket to Gmail)
•… And so much more.

Getting Started is Easy

Admittedly, it is hard to think of what can be automated from the outset. I suggest the following candidates for automation:

•Instances where someone is copying and pasting data between systems
•Instances where a lot of time is spent on data entry
•Instances where you want team members to be able to dump data into a single, shared repository
•Repetitive tasks

Most of us have a lot to do and not enough time to do it. Fortunately, web automation tools like Zapier and IFTTT make it easy to reduce the time we spend on non-value added tasks, when what we really care about is the output or product of those tasks.

I encourage you to think about the work being done in your organization, then check out the recipes on Zapier and IFTTT. I promise you will find ways to reduce work, so that you and your organization can spend time on what really matters: your mission.

Stay (Mission) Focused: A Simple Tool to Help You Save Time and Speed Up Your Organization, August 21, 2014, NTEN, by Jesse Flores