Rare Disease Report

How to Create the Next Ice Bucket Challenge

APRIL 03, 2017
James Radke
In an essay published in Nature Human Behaviour, psychology professor Sander van der Linden of the University of Cambridge provides some insight on why some social causes go viral and others do not.
By far, the biggest fundraiser to go viral was 2014’s Ice Bucket Challenge that raised $115 million for ALS research. Another good example, according to Dr van der Linden, is Facebook’s organ donor initiative that went viral with nearly 40,000 new online registrations in just two weeks.
Dr van der Linden refers to these examples as viral altruism; an altruistic act of one individual directly inspires another, spreading rapidly like ‘a contagion across a network of interconnected individuals’.

SMART Campaign

According to Dr van der Linden, an altruistic event goes viral if it is a SMART campaign. Defined, a SMART campaign is one that can successfully leverage “social (S) influence processes, establish a moral (M) imperative to act, inspire (positive) affective reactions (AR), and translate (T) and convert social momentum into sustained real-world contributions.”
The acronym needs some work. However, Dr van der Linder used the Ice Bucket Challenge to illustrate how it was SMART. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge elicited empathy from friends in your social network for people suffering from ALS and inspired others, through a fun event, to react. Those reactions translated into real donations.
In theory, it sounds easy. But I have seen many non-profit groups try a variety of challenges that never went viral. I personally love the PHF campaign (Pie Hits Face for Pediatric Hydrocephalus Foundation), yet it never went viral like the Ice Bucket Challenge did.
The PHF campaign is not alone. Even the Ice Bucket Challenge couldn’t compete with its own success. After collecting over $114 million in 2014, the ALS Association collected $25 million in 2015. An amount similar to their 2012 and 2013 donations. 
One reason the Ice Bucket Challenge did not work in 2015 is that viral experiences tend to have a short half life. According to Dr van der Linden, they involve conditional incentives that, from a behavioral science perspective, have a short-term impact (unlike unconditional motivation that has long-term affects).  The Ice Bucket Challenge only lasted about 4 weeks during the summer because of its extrinsic nature (a friend challenging another friend). In contrast,  a person helping out at a food kitchen on a weekly basis is doing so because of an intrinsic, unconditional factor. Their actions do not raise as much money or awareness, but their behavior lasts much longer.

The Next Ice Bucket Challenge

Dr van der Linden does not really provide a recipe to be the next Ice Bucket Challenge but instead argues, that longevity should be what non-profit strive to achieve. He uses the Movember movement as an example. It is a campaign raising awareness of men’s health issues that started out with just 30 people in 2003. The movement encourages men to grow out their facial hair during the month of November. Over the past decade, it has grown to 5 million members and has raised over $136 million (Australian dollars).
According to Dr van der Linden, its long-term success is likely due to a number of factors, particularly that the movement is framed around a recurring annual event rather than a completion of a single actions or behaviours. Moreover, the incentive is intrinsic, as it allows members to identitify as part of a larger social movement.

Economics 101

In summary, maybe it is best not to think about trying to become the next Ice Bucket Challenge. Instead, create a campaign that is SMART; one that generates long term, intrinsic excitement among your social network. The Ice Bucket Challenge was like a person winning the lottery. Personally, I like to play the lottery once in a while but 99.9% of my retirement is based on sound investment strategies. Non-profits should have a similar long-term view. They are best advised to keep trying to find that next ice bucket challenge but focus 99.9% of their energy on activities that garner long term investment from their donors that can help its cause in the long run.


Van der Linden S. The nature of viral altruism and how to make it stick. Nature Human Beh. Published online Feb 13, 2017

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