News and analysis
January 08, 2015

At ALS Association, Fundraising Success Begets Fundraising Success

Courtesy of the ALS Association

Revenue from the ALS Association's fundraising walks, staged across the country by its 38 chapters, brought in $32-million last year, up from $22-million in 2013.

Call it the ice-bucket challenge effect.

The social media-fueled phenomenon, which exploded last year across the Facebook pages and Instagram accounts of Microsoft founder Bill Gates, fashion designer Donatella Versace, and countless others is rippling through traditional ALS Association events and general fundraising, according to Lance Slaughter, chief chapter relations and development officer.

Revenue from the federated charity’s fundraising walks, staged across the country by its 38 chapters, brought in $32-million last year, up from $22-million in 2013.

The end-of-year fundraising drive also saw a threefold increase. From December 1 to December 28, the nonprofit logged 44,000 donations totaling $4.8-million. During the same period in 2013, excepting a $5.5-million estate gift, the group received 9,618 gifts totaling $1.6-million, Mr. Slaughter says.

The ice-bucket challenge drove an estimated $220-million in donations globally in 2014, $115-million to the ALS Association.

It will be weeks before the nonprofit has a tally of its total 2014 fundraising numbers, emphasizes Mr. Slaughter. The ALS Association is still counting gifts from the last few days of the all-important fundraising month of December. At the national level, 60 percent of revenue comes in the last quarter, which closes January 31. And the association chapters have another month to submit their numbers.

In a typical year, the fundraising spring and fall walks account for about 50 percent of chapters’ total fundraising, Mr. Slaughter says. At the start of 2014, the nonprofit had already set a goal of increasing walk revenue to about $25-million,, and as the spring period wrapped up, he felt confident things were on track.

Then the ice-bucket challenge went viral over the summer, and the fall walk season took off. In places like Pittsburgh, chapters reported 100 percent increases in participation, ALS Association officials say.

While the group is still analyzing data from recent months, it’s clear that many donors returned to the cause after time away, Mr. Slaughter says. During the peak of the ice-bucket challenge, he and many colleagues worked seven days a week, 16 hours a day. The national office was like a 24/7 telethon, he says.

"The ALS community has been waiting for this moment to have this disease reach the level of public recognition that [other diseases] have had," says Mr. Slaughter, who lost an uncle to ALS.

The nonprofit, which is dedicated to advancing long-term treatments and discovering a cure for the progressive neurodegenerative disease (often referred to as Lou Gehrig’s Disease), has already announced a tripling of its investments in research, to focus on six programs and efforts. It is also increasing funding for its Certified Treatment Centers of Excellence, which provide care and support services for sick individuals.

Veteran fundraising consultant Roger Craver says he is not surprised the charity saw an uptick in its general fundraising. He says the staff at the ALS Association deftly navigated a tidal wave of money and publicity that would have swamped many organizations.

The group did "an exceptional" job following up with the donors who made those initial ice-bucket gifts, Mr. Craver says. He himself made a gift, and his donation was followed promptly by a thank-you note with details of how the nonprofit was moving forward with the money.

"There was a lot of pressure on them to say, ‘We are spending this money immediately on x, y, and z, and they resisted doing that," Mr. Craver says. "They told the donors, ‘Here is the planning process and the process for spending this money effectively.’ "

In an October interview with Chronicle contributor Tony Martignetti, ALS Association President Barbara Newhouse was clearly sensitive to the intense spotlight on the nonprofit now. She and her colleagues were trying to quickly seize opportunities created by the ice-bucket challenge, she said, but did not hire lots of new staff, which could have been viewed unfavorably.

"It is not our intention to turn our organization into a top-heavy organization because of these dollars," Ms. Newhouse said. "That is not at all where we are headed. We want to use these dollars to find an effective treatment and ultimately a cure."

One of the central tasks for staff is to determine the "new normal" for the ALS Association, say Ms. Newhouse and Mr. Slaughter. They are on the verge of adding one new chapter. And while the group will adjust fundraising goals, it also recognizes that the ice-bucket challenge was an anomaly.

"What is clear, what we hope is irreversible, is the fact that there is a profound understanding and a level of concern in the public that continues to generate more support," Mr. Slaughter said.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.