What the Ice Bucket Challenge Can Teach Us About Political Fundraising


Unless you pride yourself on your cozy existence underneath a rock, you have likely heard about the ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge” which has taken the Internet by storm the past few weeks.

If you aren’t aware, the Ice Bucket Challenge began as a viral campaign to raise money for ALS awareness and has spread rapidly across various forms of social media. Just how rapid has it been? The New York Times reported on August 17th that over 1.2 million #IcebucketChallenge videos have been posted to Facebook so far, and that the challenge has been mentioned more than 2.2 million times since July 29th this year.

And, get this — as of this blog posting, the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised $79.2 million in donations – compared with $2.5 million during the same time period last year .

According to ALSA, these donations have come from existing donors and (brace yourself here, fellow fundraisers)… 1.7 million new donors to the association.

As a fundraiser, I am undoubtedly impressed by that huge surge in receipts – but what is even MORE impressive is that second number: 1.7 million new donors to the cause of ALS awareness. Those of us involved in politics, which often deals in the currency of data and contact information, understand the amazing power of having that many new contacts, emails and individuals plugged into your cause.

So, “the Challenge” has proved to be a tremendous success story for ALS. But what can it teach us about political fundraising?

Disclaimer: I fully recognize that there is a significant difference between fundraising for a worthy non-profit, especially one that raises funds for such a devastating disease, and fundraising for a political candidate. However, I specialize in political fundraising and I believe that when you’re asking for resources, certain principles work across the board. 


So, What CAN this teach us about fundraising for candidates? 
  • It is possible to make fundraising viral!
    I will admit, this goes against many points that I often make on this blog and with my clients.  I do still believe that there is often no “Magic Fix” for political fundraising that will relieve candidates of the hard work of making calls and doing events. However, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge proves that it is possible to engage donors on a large scale using social media and a successful viral campaign. The key here is authenticity and the passion of your ‘seed participants.’  A campaign like this couldn’t work if it wasn’t original and coming from influential ambassadors – people who have strong reputations in the community, celebrities and local leaders.How this translates to political fundraising: It is possible to bring fundraising effectively into the world of hashtags, retweets and selfies – if its done effectively. Find strong ambassadors who can promote your cause and your campaign with passion and authenticity. Don’t try a new gimmick each week — pick one and stick to it. Make it original to you and your campaign. And please, on behalf of the entire internet…. don’t try to get people to pour buckets of ice water on their head. It’s been done.
  • Peer Pressure Works!
    Every good fundraiser knows that peer pressure isn’t just a high school phenomenon. Applied in appropriate doses, a little bit of peer pressure is an extremely effective way to cut through the clutter of your donors’ everyday lives and ensure they know the importance of your cause. What made the Challenge successful (among many things) was the pressure individuals felt to either pony up or ice up after being named by their friends and colleagues. After all, no one wants to look like they don’t care about a worthy cause like ALS awareness… and certainly no one wants to look cheap in front of their friends.What does this look like for political fundraising? Utilize your influence and influencers to remind your donors of the importance of your cause! You are working to make your community a better place and their investment is key to making it happen.Use individuals’ names! I am a huge proponent of host committees on invitations because it keeps individuals invested in your event. List your hosts on the invite, send updates with their current totals to the finance committee and allow for some accountability within your fundraising apparatus.
  • Even backlash can (sometimes) be good for your cause    Ok, stick with me here, folks…One thing that has fascinated me about the Ice Bucket Challenge is the wide variety of reactions that these videos have spurned. Frankly, its impossible to have something distributed so widely on social media without a few commentators posting their disgust for one reason or another. However, in the case of the Challenge, editorials calling it out for being “narcissism posing as altruism” or “inauthentic” have only served to increase awareness for the challenge and engage more people in the greater debate. This is a great example of  the old adage “there’s no such thing as bad press” – as ALS continues to raise money hand over fist through this challenge!Major Caveat – As a former PR professional, I do strongly believe that bad press exists – especially for fundraisers and politicians. I can think of thousands of examples of bad press, including but not limited to fundraising pitches involving poor taste, illegal contributions or inappropriate asks. 

    My point here is that oftentimes public figures avoid taking a risk because of potential backlash and miss out on the potential benefit. Keep in mind that sometimes the ‘haters’ who disagree with your campaign or your tactics are often doing you a favor. If you are confident in the appropriateness of your campaign, then brush it off and keep on fundraising!



Do you more thoughts on how the Ice Bucket Challenge translates into lessons for political candidates? Post them below!!





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