Surely you’ve heard about the “Ice Bucket Challenge” by now—and most likely seen it take over your Facebook feed. The general structure is a benevolent pyramid scheme: you take the challenge—recording yourself dumping a bucket of ice water on your head—and post the video on social media, tagging three of your friends. Those three friends take the challenge, then challenge three more of their friends, and before you know it, your News Feed is nothing but drenched hair and soaked shirts. You can pass on the challenge, but in exchange, you’re asked to donate to the ALS Association (although many are doing both).

A challenge is born

The Ice Bucket Challenge started in early July as a campaign to raise money for the charity of one’s choice, then soon became associated with ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, after former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, who has the disease, challenged others. It has since spread like wildfire (ice’s eternal nemesis), from celebrities to CEOs, baby boomers to millennials, a helicopter atop a mountain to the entire New England Patriots.

The challenge reached fever pitch this week with a saturation of press coverage, including a presidential nomination from 86-year-old matriarch Ethel Kennedy.

The ALS Association didn’t plan this campaign, nor could they have anticipated its success. It happened organically thanks to a perfect storm of people and events. And naturally, other nonprofits are looking at its success and wondering, “How do we get in on that?”

The short answer: break a few rules.

The pros and cons of a viral success

While we can all learn a lot from the challenge’s strong points…

  • Content is digestible and shareable. Rarely do any of the videos exceed a minute or so, and you can even fit a challenge into a six-second Vine.
  • Accountability is crucial. Instead of an organization telling people what to do, the challenge has spread because friends and family nominate each other. And with names tagged in the caption of a video and shared on Facebook, everyone can see who has been nominated—leading to greater accountability (read: public shaming). The 24-hour time cap also adds a sense of urgency.
  • It’s fun, but in an honest way. The challenge is just wacky enough for participants to feel like they’ve done something crazy and brave, but not so wacky that there’s any actual risk of hurting or embarrassing themselves. It’s also an inclusive challenge.
  • The timing is perfect. And not just because it’s been a bright spot in an otherwise tough summer. In June, Facebook announced changes to its News Feed algorithm that gave more weight to videos. People who view more videos see more; those who tend to skip them see fewer.

… we’re impressed by the number of best practices it ducks.

  • It isn’t easy to donate. The challenge’s donation ask is buried—if included at all—and it’s entirely up to the person on camera. There has been no clear push to contribute financially, and yet the ALSA has seen a spike in donations.
  • The ask? Don’t give. The challenge’s primary call-to-action is NOT to donate to charity. Instead, dump water over your head. And if you feel so inclined, sure, why not, go ahead and donate—but the ask is an afterthought.
  • Nothing is branded. The hashtag is sometimes #ALSIceBucketChallenge, but #IceBucketChallenge has been more popular and uses fewer characters. While the ALSA is getting the most traction from the challenge, supporters are being directed to other ones, too. And unlike shaving your head to raise awareness and money for cancer research, there is no obvious thematic connection between the challenge and the disease, ALS.
  • Sharers should be supporters. The number of people who have taken the challenge continues to swell, but ALSA and other organizations only have data on donors—meaning they aren’t able to grow relationships with a new, huge base of interested advocates.

Despite some backlash and cynicism, anything that gets so many people participating and talking is a great thing. One particularly moving video from former NFL player Steve Gleason drives this point home, reminding us, as SB Nation put it, that “the reason we’re dumping ice over our heads is those affected by ALS like Gleason himself.”

Can the challenge be bigger and better?

There’s no denying that the campaign has been a massive success, to the tune of over $4 million raised since July 29, compared to $1.12 million over the same period last year. By stumbling head-first into the ice bucket challenge, the ALSA has also benefited from a great perk, organizationally: unlike a 5K walk or a gala dinner, the viral campaign hasn’t required months of planning, street closures, permits, sponsors, or staffing. Overhead costs for participants include a bucket and a bag of ice—and even the ice is optional if the water’s cold enough.

But the challenge could be better. How can the ALSA seize this moment and keep the momentum going, without suffocating the campaign or creating even more backlash?

  • Create a content hub. A Tagboard or RebelMouse page can aggregate all the submissions, and a page on the website can be devoted to the challenge (such as For example, when the It Gets Better Project started aggregating content, things quickly moved from sharing to full-bore community mobilization.
  • Celebrate celebrity. Assemble a page to show off the celebrities, politicians, and other well-known people who have taken part.
  • Start using a lightbox. Take over the homepage to generate more donations and sign-ups, while letting visitors know they’ve come to the right place.
  • Keep track. Follow up with the most thorough analytics you can find: how many people participated? How many challenges were made and accepted? How many new donors and email subscribers did you receive? How many gallons of water were dumped, and how many Olympic-sized pools would that fill? And most important: how will this influx of money be put to good use? You can stretch this content well into an EOY fundraising campaign, or in the least, turn it into an excellent and fun Cards Against Humanity-style infographic.

And as for the backlash…

On top of the millions raised through challenge, it has also generated tremendous awareness for the fight against ALS in a broad, digestible way—the same way that breast cancer organizations have become associated with all things pink. But despite (or perhaps because of) its ubiquity, Pink Ribbon Culture has suffered its own major backlash.

Does wearing pink by itself help fight cancer? And does dumping water on your head actually help ALS research? Could this all be Slacktivism—posting a video or tweeting a hashtag and feeling that’s enough, while getting credit for the act via likes, shares, retweets? As Will Oremus points out in Slate:

Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that, for most of the people posting ice-bucket videos of themselves on Facebook, Vine, and Instagram, the charity part remains a postscript. Remember, the way the challenge is set up, the ice-drenching is the alternative to contributing actual money. Some of the people issuing the challenges have tweaked the rules by asking people to contribute $10 even if they do soak themselves. Even so, a lot of the participants are probably spending more money on bagged ice than on ALS research.

He suggests the #nobucketchallenge, in which you donate to the ALSA without sharing the news on Facebook. I don’t foresee this challenge being quite as successful. I think my iciness has melted.