News and analysis
August 26, 2015

In a Second Go-Around, Response to 'Ice-Bucket Challenge' Is Muted

Charles Krupa/AP Images

The ALS Association received $500,000 in donations this month, less than 1 percent of what it received from the ice-bucket challenge campaign a year ago.

If the 2014 "ice-bucket challenge" was a roaring hurricane of YouTube videos and cold soakings, the 2015 version might be described as a tepid sprinkle.

The campaign, which the ALS community hopes to make an annual event — with the tagline "Every August until a cure" — has generated $500,000 in donations this month for the ALS Association, officials said Wednesday. Last year, the charity took in $115 million as the biggest beneficiary of the organic, social-media-fueled fundraising drive.

"I think we have done a good job," said Barbara Newhouse, chief executive of the ALS Association. "Are there things we could always do better? Yes."

The 2014 numbers are not a realistic point of comparison, Ms. Newhouse said. Instead, this year’s figures will be the baseline for the charity and its peer organizations as they work to carry the ice-bucket challenge into the future.

"I think we have had great visibility during this month of August," Ms. Newhouse said. "I think it has allowed us to get, perhaps, some points out about the ALS movement. I don’t think anyone ever expected fundraising was going to be anywhere near what it was last year."

In the months leading up to the start of the 2015 campaign, several ALS-focused groups worked on timing, strategy, and potential partners. Generating momentum was a challenge, said Rob Goldstein, vice president of marketing, communications and development at the ALS Therapy Development Institute.

"I think we were all very surprised at how little interest existed in the media, or corporations to be partners," Mr. Goldstein said. "Everybody kept saying, ‘Oh, we want to wait to see what happens. Oh, we want to wait to see what happens.’"

Last year, the ice-bucket challenge drove $4 million and 60,000 first-time donors to the ALS Therapy Development Institute, a nonprofit biotech firm based in Cambridge, Mass., Mr. Goldstein said. He declined to provide specific numbers for this month, but said the drop in donations was significant.

"Instead of talking of tens of thousands of new donors or millions of dollars in new revenue, we are talking hundreds of returning donors and tens of thousands of dollars of revenues," Mr. Goldstein said.

Reduced Expectations

The original ice-bucket challenge began to gain traction in July 2014 among networks of families and friends affected by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly referred to as both ALS and Lou Gehrig’s Disease. By August, videos of the powerful, rich, and famous subjecting themselves to cold soakings and prodding others to donate were tearing across digital media.

Before the earlier ice-bucket challenge, the ALS Association had a $20-million operating budget. During the first campaign, it attracted 2.5 million new donors, 600,000 of whom requested follow-up communication from the charity. During the most frenzied day of the campaign in August 2014, the group took in $11.5 million.

To remain true to the roots of the original campaign, leaders in the ALS community decided that this year’s effort would be set in motion by ALS patients Pat Quinn, Pete Frates, and Anthony Senerchia, who helped catalyze the 2014 campaign.

While the movements’ leaders expected that this year’s campaign would be smaller, their aim is to create an annual event similar in approach to the Movember project, in which men grow mustaches to raise draw attention to prostate cancer. One objective, Ms. Newhouse and others said, has been to unite groups in the ALS community that previously collaborated little. The ALS Association created a new ice-bucket challenge website and created a series of emails and other communications to drive participation.

"We knew that it was important to try again," Ms. Newhouse "We knew that Pat Quinn and Pete Frates wanted us all to try again, and try in a collaborative way."

On July 31, Mr. Frates, Mr. Quinn, and Mr. Senerchia did the ice-bucket challenge at Fenway Park, alongside the Boston Red Sox. Major League Baseball contributed $100,000.

Novelty Factor Gone

Even before the water had stopped flowing in the 2014 campaign, fundraising experts in the nonprofit field predicted that recreating the ice-bucket challenge on a similar scale would be nearly impossible. And despite the high-profile kick-off, ice-bucket challenge 2.0 has reverberated little beyond the ALS community.

The results are less a reflection of the fundraising ability of the ALS charities and more a confirmation that such campaigns are unpredictable and difficult to manage, fundraising experts said.

The 2014 version was a "wonderful groundswell" that reached influential figures like Bill Gates, said June Bradham, chairman of the fundraising consulting firm CorporateDevelopMint. Now it’s back to reality.

"This was a perfect storm that goes back to the basics after the mountaintop experience," she said.

Last year, many people were attracted by the novelty of the ice-bucket challenge and the enormous publicity it received, said fundraising consultant Edith Falk.

"Having said that, the real long-term pay-off of any donor-acquisition effort, whether a special event or other direct-marketing activity, is renewing the support of first-time donors for a second year and beyond," Ms. Falk said.

Ms. Newhouse said that the 2014 ice-bucket challenge coincided with a summer of grim international news, including the expansion of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. People may have been looking for something fun in which to engage. Conditions were different this year.

Creating lightning in a bottle a second time was never going to happen, said Mr. Goldstein of the ALS Therapy Development Institute.

"This is a phenomenon, and by definition, phenomenon is unpredictable," he said.

Still, the second go-around has served to keep people engaged in the ALS cause. And there is no doubt that more people know what this disease is, Ms. Newhouse and Mr. Goldstein said.

The work to raise money and support research and other programs will continue, they said. Ms. Newhouse pointed out that although $115 million is a lot of money, it is just 10 percent of what is needed to get a drug from research to market.

"The challenge is going to be a part of our fabric for a long time," Ms. Newhouse said. "I am confident it is going to be around next year because it has to be until we have solution for this disease."

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.