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For Nonprofits, It Starts at the Roots

Posted: September 26, 2014, 7:41 p.m.
by Kelsey Weiss and Doug Killough.

Ice was purchased, buckets were filled, and cameras were ready to capture the moment of someone being drenched with water. Every social media platform seemed to have a video posted and someone new being “dared” to attempt the ALS Ice Bucket challenge. Meanwhile, we were collectively doused with exposure to a disease known as amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also referred to as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

What is ALS?
ALS affects approximately 5,600 people each year, according to The ALS Association. ALS causes motor neurons to degenerate, leaving those affected with little to no voluntary muscle power. There is no cure or treatment for ALS, but ALS recently gained both awareness and support.

For ALS, the beginning of a worldwide trend started with a former Boston College baseball player, Pete Frates, 29. Frates’ friends took the Ice Bucket Challenge and used it to “dare” friends to dump a bucket of ice water on them and/or donate to The ALS Association. It spread like wildfire. Professional athletes and celebrities alike heard Frates’ story and saw the videos, so they also took on the challenge and dared their friends on social media. Why was it so successful? It all begins at the roots — grassroots.

The term grassroots refers to a public relations strategy that engages the public at a local level. A grassroots strategy is typically used during political campaigns but can be useful for any public relations campaign.

“We call it the ripple effect,” Kyle Potvin, principal, Splash Communications LLC, said. “Start with the initial splash of local partnerships, frequent message reinforcement and loyal support from those who care so much about what you are doing that they become your unofficial brand ambassadors. From there, each positive association or interaction produces ripples about your product, company or services that continue to expand throughout the community.”

The ALS #IceBucketChallenge raised more than $115 million since July 29 of this year, according to The ALS Association — a number that proves grassroots public relations, in combination with a large, online trend, can be extremely successful. The ripple reached from Pete Frates to Bill Gates and everyone in between. But The ALS Association did not even have to get its hands wet to benefit from one of the most successful grassroots campaigns via social media.

“We were not behind it,” Cassie Barber, executive director of The ALS Association, Alabama Chapter, said. “We were in front.”

The ALS Association inadvertently benefited from a grassroots-style PR movement, which is uncommon among nonprofits who often struggle for this level of fundraising. The grassroots effect took place because of the numerous people who used social media to raise awareness and funds. The ALS Association simply stood back, amazed, and watched the dollar amount exponentially grow. Now, it’s up to the people who make up The ALS Association to determine its future.

What happens when the ice melts
The tidal wave of success for ALS has left supporters and participants wondering, “What’s next?” The key part of this latest phenomenon is to take note of the way nonprofit fundraising, in particular, has evolved in recent years. Before the Internet and social media platforms, causes were adopted and chiefly relied on word-of-mouth to reach their key audiences. With the advent of the Internet and its widespread use in 2000, we’ve seen up-to-date fundraising and awareness methods truly take shape.

“These are fads — and they’re continuing. We’re going to . . . see these fads change the way that money is raised,” said Andy Bell, executive vice president of The National MS Society, Alabama-Mississippi Chapter. “Right now I’d say that social media is the fad and is the way that fundraising is really taking off. And this [The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge] is just an extension.”

Social media is truly only as effective as the interaction and engagement it creates. For nonprofit organizations, that’s the push they rely on. However, organizations like The ALS Association should be warned against depending wholly on one event or tactic to continue the success story year after year. The Ice Bucket Challenge should be viewed as something that will, unfortunately, hit its expiration date. It’s up to The ALS Association to move the momentum in a new, stable direction.

“It’s like wealth management. You want to have a diversified portfolio . . . of ways people can be involved and be engaged,” Bell noted. “You know there will be years where traditional fundraising events don’t meet revenue goals due to unforeseen external (or internal) factors — oftentimes you can’t anticipate these things.”

“And so by having the diversified portfolio, [not] relying on just one thing like the Ice Bucket Challenge every year — you don’t set yourself up for so much risk,” Bell said.

In the end, the opportunity for growth lies in the 3 million individual donors who contributed to the massive amount of money raised. Once the fad is over and the buckets are put away, The ALS Association must capitalize on the opportunity to connect with those one-time donors on a long-term basis. For nonprofits, the true “ripple effect” begins when they create relationships and establish “unofficial brand ambassadors” that will continue the legacy for years to come.


  1. Post comment

    Kelsey and Doug, I really enjoyed reading your post and found it very informative. It is interesting to note how social media has transformed the “grassroots” campaigning process, especially for nonprofits and fundraising. I completely agree that social media is only as effective as the engagement it creates. I think it will be interesting to see in the future how this growing trend of grassroots strategy through social media will in turn affect the social media culture and how we use it. As more and more trends like the Ice Bucket Challenge become rampant across our various social media sources, will we turn to new forms of social media to escape the overload? The Ice Bucket Challenge was incredibly beneficial and successful for ALS because there was no similar competition. If the trend grows out of proportion, it could turn people away from social media outlets.

  2. Post comment

    Kelsey and Doug, what a great piece. The Ice Bucket Challenge is an innovative idea that can potentially change the way many organizations market nonprofit fundraising. Before reading this article, I was not aware of the term “grassroots.” Based off your explanation of the term, and the success shown from the Ice Bucket Challenge, I believe the grassroots strategy is effective. Throughout the craze of the Ice Bucket Challenge, I could not help but notice that many people had negative opinions about the challenge. A large audience on social media believed the strategy was not effective, because people were simply dumping water on their heads without donating. The $115 million in donations is strong evidence that plenty of people were donating money and accepting the challenge to help spread awareness. The challenge is definitely a fad, but it is supposed to be a fun, interactive way to be a part of a great cause. I am hoping this will lead to the success of many nonprofit organizations.


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