One year after the Ice Bucket Challenge, what now?

Remember the Ice Bucket Challenge? Where every second post on Facebook was of a mate tipping a bucket of ice water on themselves? And remember how you laughed hysterically at their reactions until you realised they just nominated you to complete the challenge next?

In Australia alone, there are now more than 60,000 registered charities with the ACNC and the amount of not-for-profit organisations are predicted to rise even further. Given that there are now so many charities competing for the same goodwill dollar, how can an organisation stand out from the rest?

To explore this question, we turn to the Ice Bucket Challenge – one of the most successful cause marketing campaigns in the history of advertising. The organisation behind it was the Motor Neuron Disease ‘MND’ Foundation (or Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis ‘ALS’ Foundation if you’re American). The rules of the challenge were straight forward enough: pour a bucket of ice water on yourself, challenge three other people to do the same and capture this process on camera. If you were challenged, but couldn’t (or wouldn’t) undertake the challenge in 24 hours, then you have to donate $100 to the cause.

The Ice Bucket Challenge

The challenge itself aimed to temporarily numb and mimic the loss of control over voluntary muscle activity of the body experienced in MND patients. It was a feel-good social phenomenon that achieved unprecedented global reach, raised awareness of a cause that was largely unknown to the average Joe and, not to mention, recorded a 3,500% increase in donations totalling more than $100 million raised globally. Not bad, hey?

There are three underlying reasons why the Ice Bucket Challenge was such a huge success:

  1. It was fun. Integrating an element of fun (or, in marketing jargon, gamification) into a campaign will make it more rewarding and engaging to the target audience. Although pouring a bucket of ice water on yourself may not sound like much fun, most of us won’t back down from a challenge.
  2. It was social. We all love to have a good laugh at our friends and watching them get drenched with a cold bucket of water surprisingly (or rather, unsurprisingly) produces great, shareable and entertaining content. The campaign itself also had a domino ‘pay it forward’ effect – once you got challenged and completed the task, you had the privilege of challenging three more people.
  3. It was easy. As an economist would describe it, the challenge had low barriers to entry (read, it was easy to get involved). All you needed was a bucket, some ice water and your phone to record, hashtag and post. The call to action was clear, simple and intuitive. Put simply, the easier it is for people to jump on the campaign bandwagon, the higher the social reach and the higher the number of donations.

One year on and MND Australia is still benefiting from the successes of the Ice Bucket Challenge. A large proportion of the donations have been funneled into further research for the disease which, currently, has no cure. Today’s Queen Birthday AFL match at the MCG also saw a fundraising campaign titled ‘Big Freeze at the G’. In support of Neale Daniher, a former Essendon player and Melbourne coach, the Freeze MND event saw several well known footy personalities slide into a giant ice pool, raising over $2.2 million in donations.

Big Freeze at the G

From a marketing and organisational perspective, the three elements of making a campaign fun, social and easy are certainly key to making any campaign a standout. A word of caution though to consumers – we are all susceptible to ‘funding cannibalism’. The money that we donate to MND (or any other cause, for that matter) just doesn’t come out of nowhere. We’re likely to irrationally justify our behaviour by thinking that because we’ve donated x amount to MND already, we should just adjust our giving budgets and donate less to our existing charitable commitments. So sure, pour a bucket of ice water on yourself or donate to the ‘Big Freeze at the G’, but do not lose sight of your other altruistic obligations. Rather than making a small donation to a charity that you don’t know much about, it would be much more worthwhile to make a lasting commitment to one that you know creates the greatest amount of good with every dollar (i.e. effective altruism). Sites like are a great place to start.


One thought on “One year after the Ice Bucket Challenge, what now?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s