Beyond the Ice Bucket Challenge - What we're learning about philanthropy

Author: Alice G. Walton

Source: Booth School of Business Capital Ideas magazine (Winter 2014/2015)

Date: November 26, 2014

Former US President George W. Bush accepted the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Leonardo DiCaprio, Mark Zuckerberg, and Kermit the Frog joined in. UK Prime Minister David Cameron and US President Barack Obama paid to avoid it.

beyond the ice bucket challengeThe informal fund-raising campaign to fight Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, in which participants posted online videos of themselves being doused with a bucket of ice water, went viral after Chris Kennedy, a golfer in Sarasota, Florida, reportedly poured ice water over himself in the name of ALS because his wife’s cousin’s husband had been diagnosed with the disease. Kennedy nominated his cousin-in-law to do the same. She filmed her drenching and posted the video to Facebook to challenge her friends.

By September 2014, the Ice Bucket Challenge had raised more than $100 million from 3 million donors, an unprecedented sum that dwarfed the $2.8 million received during the same time period the previous year.

Fund-raising has rarely seen such a torrent of charitable giving from individual donors in such a short period. People in the business—including the ALS Association, which issued press releases thanking challenge participants, donors it didn’t directly solicit—are still trying to understand why it took off.

But it’s hard to extrapolate too much from a single event. And it’s even harder to replicate the challenge’s success. Psychologists have been grappling for decades with how to tap into the elements that drive people to give money or time. More recently, economists have been adding field experiments to the search for better fund-raising strategies.

The science of philanthropy has come into its own as universities around the country have created centers to explore the topic. The Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, University of Pennsylvania’s Center for High Impact Philanthropy, and the Indiana University Lilly Family School of Philanthropy were all founded in the last decade. The University of Chicago’s own Science of Philanthropy Initiative (SPI) was founded in 2012 with a $5 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation

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