TIME

How the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Could Change Fundraising Forever

The perks—and pitfalls—of using gimmicks to raise awareness

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Never mind the ice bath; you could have just written the check.

Americans give more than $300 billion annually to charities. We’re a generous lot. Then again, there are a lot of hands out. More than a million charitable organizations are asking for those dollars, and a lot of these organizations are inefficient, or unsuccessful or both, even if they are well-meaning.

That’s what made the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge all the more eye-opening. The ALS Association was able to raise nearly $16 million from July 29 through August 18—an incredible figure, given that for all of 2012, the organization pulled in about $19 million. And it has to compete with fundraising walks, rides, swims and marathons for causes ranging from any number of diseases to fighting poverty to protecting the environment. The Ice Bucket Challenge became a virtual, and virtually frictionless, cost-free way to raise funds. Keep in mind that many charities can spend 50% of their incomes on fundraising.

The ALS Assoc. didn’t originate the Ice Bucket Challenge; it’s been used to raise funds for any number of charities. But the ability of the ALS group to take ownership is what happens when an incurable disease meets an irresistible force. That would be Peter Frates. From the moment he was diagnosed with ALS in 2012, say those who know him, he was determined to “make a difference.” When his friend and fellow ALS-sufferer Pat Quinn, a New Yorker, told him about the idea, Frates became a force to turbocharge it in Boston.

Frates might be described a one-man network. He grew up in suburban Boston, and went to school locally at St. Johns Prep and Boston College, where he played baseball. With a wide circle of friends, sporting and otherwise, he organized Team FrateTrain and starting making connections. A hockey fan, Frates was able to link up with players on the Boston Bruins and New York Rangers, where his friends and fellow BC grads Brian Boyle and Kris Kreider play. The sports celebrities led to other celebrities. As Time.com reported earlier, Frates posted his own video on Facebook on July 31, using both the hashtags #StrikeOutALS and #Quinnforthewin—and a global movement was under way.

People looking at the ice bucket challenge phenomenon are trying to extract the applicable lessons—and every charity in America is wondering how it can capitalize. “Nobody knows what the formula is. From our vantage point, we think about these issues all of the time,” says Margaret Anderson executive director of FasterCures, a think tank focused on finding treatments for the thousands of diseases, like ALS, that still lack cures. “Why are we able to dump ice on our head and potentially write a check now, but not consistently otherwise?”

Certainly, what helps to make the ice bucket challenge succeed is that it is inherently mindless. We can handle that. It’s simple enough, even fun, for kids and celebrities to take on; it’s visual so the act can be shared with the greater community; it’s achievable, in that nobody fails unlike say, a marathon or climbing Mt. McKinley. And it is endlessly, if mind numbingly, repeatable.

That’s not exactly a template, but other seemingly silly ideas, such as Movember, in which men pledge to grow a mustache to raise funds for men’s health issues such as prostate cancer, have succeeded rapidly. Founded by a small group of men in Australia, it has since grown worldwide and been augmented by MoSisters.

The bigger question is: will gimmick-driven fundraising be successful in raising our awareness about, and curing, diseases such as ALS? Frates and his wife Julie are expecting their first child soon. He is unlikely to live to see his baby grow up. But organizations such as the ALS Therapy Development Institute, which does the translational research that big pharmaceutical companies haven’t invested in because the potential market for ALS is small, will be in a stronger position to fund potential cures.

There are hundreds more such diseases that lack cures, says Anderson: “How many dollars does it take to move the needle? That is the huge question that looms for all medical research.” In the case of ALS, the benefit of the Ice Bucket Challenge is that it might give us a chance to find out.

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