Last year about this time, President Barack Obama was politely declining Justin Bieber’s invitation to douse himself in ice water. The fundraising phenomenon known as the Ice Bucket Challenge had ripped across the Internet in the early weeks of August and was reaching a crescendo. It was nearly impossible to scan a Facebook newsfeed without seeing a celebrity or sports icon upend an ice-filled bucket. Kermit the Frog, Bill Gates, Matt Damon and Mark Zuckerberg were all caught in the act.
Now, the ALS Association is trying mightily to resurrect the Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s certainly not hard to understand why. In just a few weeks last summer, Americans made more than 17 million YouTube videos featuring themselves or their loves ones, soaked and shivering happily, and sent $115 million in donations to the organization. Worldwide, the effort generated $220 million for ALS groups.
But can the ALS Association parlay one of the most viral campaigns in Internet history into an annual fundraising drive? So far, the association’s attempt to spin the freak windfall into an event that happens #EveryAugustUntilACure has struggled to take hold on Facebook and YouTube -- the key reservoirs that harbored last year’s upwelling of public support.
This year’s Ice Bucket Challenge has brought in slightly more than $500,000 from several thousand donors. That is admittedly $500,000 more than the organization might have otherwise, but the challenge generated $78 million from 1.7 million new donors in the same period last year.
“It's kind of like -- how do you catch lightning in a bottle twice?” said Brannon Cashion, president of the global branding firm Addison Whitney.
Nevertheless, Brian Frederick, chief of staff of the ALS Association, remains optimistic and says it could take several years to establish the challenge as an annual occurrence.
“So many people told us, you can't recreate the magic of 2014,” he said. “We don't see it as recreating that -- we see it as being the next round of it. We have to keep the momentum going that was started in 2014.”
ALS is a debilitating neurological disease that affects as many as 30,000 people in the U.S. Rare diseases such as ALS are not inherently cheaper to treat or cure than more common afflictions but struggle to obtain a comparable degree of federal funding. The National Institutes of Health granted $48 million to ALS research in 2014 -- an amount that is far overshadowed by federal investment into Alzheimer's disease ($562 million), breast cancer ($682 million) and heart disease ($1.2 billion).
Private supporters can make up part of the difference, but often can't fully bridge the gap. The ALS Association collected about $7.2 million in private contributions in 2011 which rose to about $8.4 million in 2013 -- the year before the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Still, some are skeptical the challenge can bring a lasting change to the ALS Association's fundraising strategy, which relies primarily on awareness walks. The group didn’t engineer the Ice Bucket Challenge in the first place, and asserting ownership over an organic phenomenon is no easy task. If they fumble the execution, the challenge may wind up feeling too forced or corporate to supporters.
“You can't recreate something that wasn't really created,” Doug Evans, a public health and marketing expert at George Washington University, said. “I think that's a big challenge because the potential to screw it up is really huge.”
Frederick says the association does not take that responsibility lightly. It took the organization’s leaders months to decide whether or not to embark on another Ice Bucket Challenge. They repeatedly sought the advice of the challenge’s 2014 catalysts: Pat Quinn, 32, of New York and his friend Pete Frates, a former baseball player for Boston College. Both Quinn and Frates have been diagnosed with ALS.
One moment in particular persuaded them to take the plunge. When Quinn accepted a Webby Award on behalf of the ALS Association and the Ice Bucket Challenge in May 2015, he used the five words allotted for his acceptance speech to float the concept: “Every August until a cure.”
“It just brought the house down,” Frederick said.
Still, the challenges of implementing it remain. One significant hurdle is that the ALS Association must find a way to make the campaign contagious once again, even after so many people already have participated.
“The problem is that this was not something they engineered or orchestrated. It was a viral phenomenon that happened to them,” Dorie Clark, a marketing strategy consultant based in New York, said. “No one -- whether it's a nonprofit or corporation or a digital agency -- has figured out how to engineer virality so that it is repeatable.”
But that doesn’t mean they can’t try. The key, Frederick said, is to launch a brand new campaign that preserves the spirit of the original challenge. So the ALS Association asked Quinn and Frates to kick off this year’s challenge at Fenway Park with the Boston Red Sox. Each day of August, one of the 30 teams in Major League Baseball takes the challenge.
“We've tried to maintain the integral elements of it which is -- it's fun, it's friends, it's family, it's friendly competition,” he said. “At the end of the day, it's about the integrity of the original purpose of helping people living with ALS.”
The association also posted logos, fliers and instructional videos on their website to help spread the word and created Facebook ads to target people who completed the challenge last year.
But Evans warns a concept that once seemed original may begin to feel tired and worn out if it is extended beyond its natural life. He said it’s important to take a frank look at the brand equity of the Ice Bucket Challenge and work to refresh or reinvigorate the concept if its strength has faded. “Do people just think -- ‘Oh that was last year's thing and it was kind of fun but it's over now?’ ” he said. “Or are people hungry for more and want to take it to the next stage?”
Frederick said the main struggle in relaunching the challenge has been spreading the word that it’s happening again. He rejected the idea the concept has outlived its appeal, noting people have continued to post and watch videos from last year’s challenge -- in fact, more than 440 million people have viewed those videos 10 billion times.
And part of the organization’s strategy has been to support those who introduce creative twists to the original challenge. A group of farmers recently took a “milk bucket challenge.” And the association promotes a drought-tolerant version in which participants swap the ice in their buckets for spare buttons, or kale.
“From a brand perspective, it's about maintaining the momentum of your brand and the exposure but also keeping it fresh,” Cashion said.
Clark said in the end, setting reasonable expectations among the public and within the ALS community for subsequent years of the challenge may be more important to the long-term health of the project than matching the fundraising success of last year.
“Will they make $100 million? Almost certainly not,” Clark said. “The people who participate this time around are probably already devotees of the cause or they are people who, for some reason, really like ice bucket challenges.”
Frederick said the ALS Association did not set any specific fundraising goals for this year’s challenge. Instead, the organization focused on establishing it as an annual event and uniting the ALS community in support of it. “We definitely, I think, accomplished both of those goals,” he said.
Cashion bet the swollen donor list that the ALS Association now has at its disposal will reap benefits for years to come, but in modest amounts -- more of a rising tide than a tidal wave.
The donations from last year’s challenge are still making waves in the ALS community. The ALS Association has spent about $47.1 million of the donations generated on research grants and patient services. Earlier this month, researchers at Johns Hopkins announced new findings that eventually could help scientists stop or slow the harmful buildup of a protein called TDP-43 that accumulates in the brains of people with ALS. Money from the Ice Bucket Challenge supported that work.
Frederick said he has also witnessed many other benefits from last year’s challenge, such as the willingness of patients to speak publicly about their condition and the ability of the public to relate to it. This year, a record-breaking 700 people attended an advocacy conference hosted by the organization in Washington.
Heather Williams, 42, a dental assistant who lives in Denver, took the Ice Bucket Challenge last year in honor of a friend’s husband who died from ALS. She was enamored with the chance to help a cause so close to her friend’s heart and said it felt "really good" to participate.
Williams wasn’t aware the Ice Bucket Challenge was happening again this year, but said she is open to repeating the challenge -- if someone challenges her.
“If the opportunity comes, I'll absolutely do it again,” she said. “I guess somebody has to start it.”