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Good Question: Do Social Media Fundraisers Really Work?

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(credit: CBS) Heather Brown
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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) – If you’ve been on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter in the past few weeks, you’ve likely seen a friend or two voluntarily pouring an ice-cold bucket of water over their heads.

It’s all part of a hugely popular social media campaign to raise awareness for ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. Celebrities, like Justin Timberlake, Mark Zuckerberg, Ethel Kennedy and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie have all taken part.

The idea is to accept the challenge of dumping the ice or donating $100 to the ALS Association or a charity of your choice. Since the end of July, the ALS Association has raised $4 million — almost four times as much as they did the same time period last year.

“I have a lot of friends challenging each other,” said Kate Weyenberg of St. Paul. “We’re trying to one-up each other.”

According to a study from UMass-Dartmouth, 97 percent of nonprofits use some form of social media. It’s not clear how many of those actively use it to fundraise, but Trista Harris, president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, says it’s a small, but growing percentage of fundraising dollars.

“I think they have huge potential,” she said. “There’s some that fizzle just like any huge campaign, but some work well, especially if you’re a trusted , well-known organization.”

Harris says most nonprofits still raise a bulk of their money through capital campaigns. A survey from the Nonprofit Research Collaborative also found 90 percent of organizations use their boards and mailings while 80 percent throw special parties or events.

“Most is coming from bigger donors, but smaller donors are increasing,” Harris said.

Last year, Movember raised $123 million for prostate cancer. Minnesota’s own Give to the Max campaign brought in $17 million. Harris believes part of the reason the Ice Bucket challenge has been so successful is because people are directly asking others to give, a key component to fundraising.

The cost to start up a social media fundraiser can range from zero dollars, like the Ice Bucket Challenge, or thousands that stem from sophisticated social media strategies.

“I’ll bet there’s a million people that have tried to start their own funny challenges and nobody ever jumped on board, it’s one of those things you have to catch the tale of the tiger,” Harris said.

But whether the campaign brings only awareness or actual dollars is still up for debate.

Cody Nelson of Minneapolis said half of his roommates took up the Ice Bucket Challenge while the other half, who generally don’t give, chose to donate.

“I think the first thing that popped for me was ‘What is ALS?’ because I didn’t know what it was and it put me to Google search it,” Nelson said.

Harris admits most of these campaigns likely bring more visibility than money, but that awareness is important, too.

“That visibility is critical,” she said. “It’s just like the commercials. You may hear a commercial 35 times and not do anything, but that 36th time, you think, maybe I really do want to go to the place.”

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