An ice-cold reality of digital engagement and the importance of starting early

When the ice-cold water rushed over my head, I involuntarily jumped like a loaded spring, ran around in a circle and let out a scream in a pitch I hadn’t hit since I was 5.

All the while, my friend barely could hold his phone still as he simultaneously laughed and recorded my contribution to the Ice Bucket Challenge, a social-media driven campaign for the ALS Association.

I was one of more than 17 million people worldwide who knew the freezing shock was coming (but freaked out anyway) and who participated to raise money for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

For a reminder of what these daring feats of fundraising were like, see:

Engaging, isn’t it? If you’re now no longer reading this and instead Googling more Ice Bucket Challenge videos, hopefully the importance of digital engagement will hit you like a bucket of ice water.

The results of the Ice Bucket Challenge proved this was not just a gimmick or “slacktivism”; supporters raised more than $115 million for the ALS Association. Those fundraising efforts helped scientists discover a new gene tied to ALS. They also helped with patient and community services, public and professional education and more.

Digitally-driven results

These videos were highly engaging, viral and emotion-evoking, and they drove awareness, education and donations to Lou Gehrig’s disease research and the ALS Association. They also drove big numbers.

Before the challenge, the ALS Association website,, averaged close to 8,000 visitors per day. Over the last four weeks of the challenge, those numbers dramatically changed, with the average rising to 630,000 visitors per day, an increase of 7,775 percent, according to Tech Crunch.

By the end of the challenge, the organization had raised $70.2 million from 1.3 million donations, compared with $2.5 million raised during the same period the year before.

But let’s dive a little deeper, because throwing ice-cold water over your head isn’t for everyone, and going viral is never guaranteed.


You can run, but you can’t hide. If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em. Your back’s against the … you get the point. Just consider the numbers, as reported by Medium in 2016:

  1. There are currently 4.4 billion email accounts worldwide and the number is expected to grow to 6.6 billion by 2019 — a surge of 26 percent.
  2. 29% of the global population uses social media. That number is expected to grow to 33 percent, or 2.44 billion users, by 2018.
  3. The number of smartphone users worldwide is expected to reach 1.9 billion in 2016 (current world population is 7.4 billion) and is projected to grow to 6.1 billion by 2020.
  4. Online giving grows on average 9 percent annually. Some studies indicate growth as high as 19 percent annually.

What does this mean for fundraising? Simply put: Donor engagement is not linear; to communicate, we must meet donors on their terms, and that’s rapidly changing to digital engagement. And many nonprofits are far behind.

“In general, given that there is such a focus on major gifts, digital has not risen to the forefront of where leadership is focused,” said Brent Grinna, founder and CEO of EverTrue, a leading software platform that supports fundraising efforts at educational institutions. “It’s fair to say the advancement sector and the philanthropic sector in general is a decade behind the for-profit world.”

Is there a generation gap in digital engagement?

Advancement shops traditionally have focused on major or mega gifts, and the majority has come from mature donors or Baby Boomers. In fact, Baby Boomers represent the top source of income for nonprofits. They comprise 34 percent of the nation’s annual donor base and contribute 43 percent of all gifts made by individuals (“The Next Generation of American Giving”).

But when in-person communication, close relationships, direct mail and phone have all worked to secure major gifts, why does digital matter?

While Boomers still engage with nonprofits through direct mail, their online giving and social media use continues to spike.

More Boomer donors now give online (42 percent) than via direct mail (40 percent). With 77 percent of adults aged 50 to 64 using the Internet, this trend is likely to climb upward, with tech-savvy Generation X and Millennials waiting on deck.

Find out more about how to engage with different generations of donors.

Why and when to launch digital

As the director or chief development officer of a major campaign, you simply can’t afford to keep digital on the backburner anymore. Here are a few reasons why:

  1. With the amount of data that can be cultivated and captured in a digital communications campaign now, your future fundraising endeavors stand to benefit greatly. This powerful information helps tailor messaging and audiences, saves time and resources and refines campaign strategy.
  2. Your efforts to communicate and connect with donors across all generations in integrated and seamless ways — including digital — will meet donors where they are and create a trail for you to follow. This can help build affinity, resulting in a continuous pool of engaged supporters now and decades from now.
  3. Casting a wide net with digital communications not only renews, builds and grows relationships with existing donors, but it also inevitably captures new donors early.

And when it comes to launching a campaign, the best strategy is to start at the beginning.

“Each new campaign presents an opportunity to essentially relaunch your fundraising division publicly, and if you were starting a company in 2018, the digital foundation you have in place is going to look radically different than if you started a company in 1988,” Grinna said. “Launching a new campaign presents an opportunity to really innovate and change your approach.”

At Cornell, early bird gets the worm

Take Cornell University. When crowdfunding started taking off several years ago, Cornell wanted to explore new ways to interact with donors and convert alumni affinity to giving that would help move the university’s mission forward.

Crowdfunding was just an initial step. Andrew Gossen, now Cornell’s Alumni Affairs and Development digital director, wanted to see what his team could make of the broader set of digital tools becoming available.

Along with partners from other programs area, including Annual Giving Programs, Brand & Communications, and IT, the Cornell team embarked on a strategy that tied together email, web and social — an integrated user experience that extracted data and provided important information about individuals and giving habits.

The strategy worked, as seen in the success of Cornell’s Giving Day: This year the university raised more than $7.8 million in one day online. They also use data to assess alumni behavior and more accurately target digital communications.

“We think that digital is the most effective channel we have,” Gossen said. “With tools like this, we can see what people are interested in right now and produce a better user experience for alumni. ”

Memorial Sloan Kettering: Pedaling forward with digital

For Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, support for its Cycle for Survival campaign is key in securing the funds needed to revolutionize how cancer is diagnosed and treated and to power research of rare types of cancer.

The campaign brings supporters together on stationary bikes nationwide at various locations so they can pedal together for a common cause. This year, the event raised $39 million, included 34,000 participants riding in shifts, 7,600 bikes, 16 cities and 230,000 donors.

MSK uses digital channels — such as web, email and social — along with in-person meetings and personalized outreach as primary methods of communication with participants and donors, said Katie Klein, director of fundraising events at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

“Cycle for Survival’s growth, from the very beginning, has been rooted in digital and social communications,” Klein said. “For MSK’s Development strategy, the pursuit of new technologies has always been both supported and encouraged, opening up a lot of exciting opportunities for Cycle for Survival.”

One of those is a dedicated email newsletter for Cycle for Survival team captains that is short, simple and provides recipients with tangible tools and ideas to support their efforts. Creating a social media series for different sub-campaigns is also a priority. Visually compelling sets of images are posted to announce event dates, share fundraising totals, and illustrate the impact of the funds raised — all designed as shareable content.

This kind of forward-thinking digital strategy and targeting helps drive Cycle for Survival forward.

In 2018 and beyond, digital is a must for campaign communications. Embracing it early and often is key to your campaign’s success and the future of your institution’s fundraising efforts, including the way you cultivate donors.

Is it the only way? Although digital is trending upward quickly, communication to your philanthropic audiences must be integrated and multi-channeled. The sooner you do that the more successful your campaign will be. What you do now with digital will help ensure your organization is on the path to a bright and secure future.

Sarah Muench is an Associate Consultant for Marts & Lundy Communications. Contact her at