The Big Issue: How can charities build on unexpected windfalls?

The ice bucket challenge is the latest fundraising trend to reap surprising rewards. Susannah Birkwood reports

Manchester Dog's Home: donations from the public flooded in after a fire (photo: The Sun)
Manchester Dog's Home: donations from the public flooded in after a fire (photo: The Sun)

There has been a stream of events in recent years that have resulted in charities receiving unexpected windfalls. The catalysts have often been tragic events – for example, the deaths of Claire Squires, who collapsed while running the London Marathon in 2012, and Stephen Sutton, the 19-year-old who died from cancer earlier this year.

Donations in memory of Squires ended up totalling £950,000 for Samaritans, while Sutton, who did a large amount of fundraising in the months before his death, raised £5m for the Teenage Cancer Trust. More recently, £1.4m was raised for the Manchester Dogs' Home in only four days after more than 50 dogs perished in a fire at its premises.

Social media has given rise to other forms of unexpected fundraising, including the #nomakeupselfie, a viral campaign that raised £8m for Cancer Research UK, and the ice bucket challenge, which has raised £4.5m for Macmillan Cancer Support and £6.8m for the Motor Neurone Disease Association in the UK, and about £70m for the ALS Association, a motor neurone disease research charity in the US.

But not all such events achieve the same level of success. Two people have died recently participating in separate charity bike rides: Anna Roots' JustGiving page has raised a comparatively modest £23,000 for Leukaemia & Lymphoma Research; and Kris Cook's page has raised £49,000 for Woking Hospice.

So what is it that differentiates the spontaneous campaigns that garner the most widespread public support? Rachel Collinson, a fundraising innovation consultant, says it comes down to chance. "I think there's almost a lightning strike about it; the right story at the right time that can make this kind of thing happen," she says.

But Beth Thoren, director of fundraising and communications at the RSPB, points to a number of factors that gave the ice bucket challenge the edge over other viral fundraising campaigns. She says it gained traction after Anthony Senerchia and Peter Frates, two people with motor neurone disease, took the challenge and said that it simulated the early symptoms of the disease. When people nominated friends to take part, it had a multiplier effect, says Thoren, as did the heavy involvement of celebrities.

Ensure a quick response

Can charities prepare for such events? Catherine Cottrell, deputy executive director of fundraising at Unicef, says that they can by ensuring they are able to respond quickly when they see stakeholders talking about their organisation or cause, by thanking people who participate – rather than phoning them and trying to convert them to regular givers – and by fostering a culture in which sign-off procedures do not prevent innovation.

Charities that do not have the resources of titans such as CRUK and Macmillan should not feel excluded, according to Zoe Amar, a charity marketing and digital communications consultant. She says small charities can use free social media monitoring tools, such as Hootsuite and TweetDeck, to try to round up some digital volunteers if a campaign takes off overnight.

"People in the sector said you had to be a really big charity to make the most of a supporter-led campaign such as the ice bucket challenge, but I don't think that's the case," she says. "You just need to have a good plan, be able to draft in a bit of extra help and throw everything you have at the campaign."

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