As a healthcare non-profit, it's very easy to feel lost in the shuffle sometimes; there are so many great organizations vying for donors’ attention, it can be difficult to cut through the noise. If your core mission is less visible than widely-known issues, it's possible that many potential donors in your demographic may not have even heard of you and the important work that you do.
Viral charity awareness campaigns are a fantastic way to bring a lot of attention -- and revenue -- to your non-profit quickly and grow your profile in the public eye. Unfortunately, things don't just go viral because we want them to. It takes the combination of a really great idea, a strong base of supporters that are committed to participating and spreading the word, and a little bit of luck and timing. Really great ideas don't grow on trees, but with some research and brainstorming you can develop your own. Let's talk about some that have worked in the past and why they were so succesful. Maybe one will inspire you!
ALS Ice Bucket Challenge
The Ice Bucket Challenge was a wildly successful campaign launched in the summer of 2014. The premise was simple -- you pour a bucket of ice and water over your head, record it to post on social media, challenge other people to do it as well, and donate to the ALS Association. Variations on the mechanics cropped up early on: Some people said you were supposed to donate whether you accepted the challenge or not, some people said you were supposed to donate only if you didn’t actually pour the ice water on yourself, but either way, it ended up raising over $115 million for the ALS Association.
It wasn’t just a tremendous success in terms of number of participants or dollars raised, either. A portion of the money helped fund research that led to the discovery of a gene that is related to the disease. This was a significant achievement and could be traced back, at least in part, to this specific awareness campaign. What made the campaign successful, though? Well, it’s pretty obvious that the fun factor has a lot to do with it. It’s funny to see how your friends react to a bucket of ice and water being poured over their heads. There’s also the social pressure aspect: If someone challenges you, they tag you. Everyone who watches their video knows you’ve been challenged to participate, so you risk looking curmudgeonly if you don’t.
Movember / No Shave November
Movember and No Shave November -- two similar but distinct campaigns that are often conflated -- are also great examples of participatory campaigns that raise awareness through a mixture of fun and positive peer pressure. Men are encouraged to grow a mustache for Movember or just not shave at all for No Shave November. The Movember Foundation funds research for prostate cancer, testicular cancer, mental health and suicide prevention; and No Shave November is actually it’s own non-profit organization that asks that participants donate whatever they would normally spend on grooming in a month to the American Cancer Society.
These campaigns have been going on for more than ten years, and while they may not generate as much excitement as they used to, they’re still going strong. For instance, Movember raised $16 million in 2015 in the United States alone. This is what differentiates these campaigns from many others - there’s a real longevity because of how fun so many people find it. It’s not a hard thing to convince people to participate in -- a lot of men want an excuse to grow out their facial hair for a full month, and some families have even made it a tradition to take a photo with everyone’s full facial hair at their Thanksgiving dinners. This means repeat donors year after year.
Starting with the red AIDS ribbon premiered at the 1991 Tony Awards, charities fighting various diseases have continued to adopt the use of colored ribbons as a symbol of their fight. Supporters can don the ribbon at specific events or just in general. They became especially popular as magnets on cars.
The AIDS ribbon was revolutionary and the story behind its premiere at the Tonys is very powerful. But the beauty behind the ribbon and the secret to its staying power is in its ease of adoption. You don’t necessarily have to buy the ribbon from the charity selling them; you can just use any length of ribbon in the correct color.
Ribbons lead to conversations and anyone who is affected by the relevant disease is able to take ownership of it. People even get ribbon tattoos. Some ribbons have risen to the level of ubiquity that everyone knows what they stand for -- in addition to AIDS red, there is breast cancer pink and a puzzle-piece pattern for autism awareness.
Red Nose Day
While not healthcare-related, Comic Relief Inc. has created an ongoing annual event called Red Nose Day that brings awareness to the non-profit’s goal of ending child poverty. The U.S. campaign raised $60 million in its first two years. They raise the money by selling red noses in Walgreens stores with the idea that people will post selfies with the hashtag #RedNoseDay to raise awareness. If donors are interested in helping further, the website offers easy fundraiser ideas.
The success of this campaign is owed mostly to the star power that the organization leverages. Comic Relief partners with celebrities to spread awareness for the day each year. 2017 participants included Bryan Cranston, Julia Roberts, Ben Stiller and Mindy Kaling, among many others. The star-studded commercials leading up to the day help to win viewers’ attention and encourage participation. A celebrity spokesperson can instantly lend credibility to a campaign that may not garner much attention on its own. Combined with it’s low barrier for entry (the noses have previously been sold at the incredibly low price of $1) it’s a recipe for a successful campaign.
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