How to survive a viral campaign

In a fascinating session at the 2015 International Fundraising Congress, two senior charity employees shared their experience of being in the eye of the storm when viral campaigns took off.

Viral campaigns are like winning the lottery for a charity. They spread fast, foster a feelgood factor generally (both about the cause in question and humanity in general) raise a lot of money and perhaps more importantly, raise awareness. At the 2015 International Fundraising Congress (IFC) in Amsterdam, organised by the Resource Alliance, two people at the epicentre of the best-known viral campaigns of the last year have shared their experience.

The ice bucket challenge was inescapable last summer, sparking in the US in July. The 'dare you' challenge had existed for a little while as an internet meme but remained unconnected to any one charity. That changed when professional golfer Chris Kennedy took the challenge and nominated his cousin Jeanette Senerchia, whose husband was suffering from the neurodegenerative disease ALS. Once that association was made, it reached Pete Frates, who was a professional European baseball player. Pete had a large network of followers on Facebook and suffered from the incurable disease. It was the proliferation from his large network that spread the challenge so widely. 

Lance Slaughter, relations and development officer of the ALS Association spoke about the thunderbolt that hit the organisation when it decided to jump on board to support the social media campaign. Once the Association noticed that the idea had some traction, at one stage its communications and marketing officer thought it might bring in $10,000 in donations. That was later revised upwards to $8m. By the time social media had moved on to the next thing, the campaign had raised $220m globally, $150m of it in the US. At one point it received $11.1m in donations in just one day.

As Slaughter took the stage at the IFC to tell the story, he looked just as gobsmacked as he might have been a year ago. He told the audience that “humility had been easy, perhaps because of the size of our organisation but also because it wasn’t our idea”. The campaign has grown its donor list to 2.5 million people and Slaughter said that the ALS association had done a lot of thanking and informing since. The team were smart enough not to push their luck, only enquiring about further donations with every fourth communication.

Also lucky enough to have a viral campaign land in her lap was Kate Collins of Teenage Cancer Trust (TCT). Stephen Sutton was diagnosed with bowel cancer at the age of 15, discovering it was incurable two years later. He started campaigning for the TCT, initially hoping to raise £10,000. Once he knew that he wasn’t going to survive, a statement on his Facebook page read: “I don’t see the point in measuring life anymore. I’d rather measure life in terms of making a difference.”

His campaigning quickly took hold. Sutton soon amassed 55,000 followers on Twitter and had raised £500,000 when things took a turn for the worse. Posting a picture of himself in hospital with tubes coming out of him, thumbs aloft and still smiling, his message on Twitter read “It’s a final thumbs up from me. I’ve done well to blag things as well as I have up till now but, unfortunately, I think this is just one hurdle too far. It’s a shame the end has come so suddenly – there’s so many people I haven’t got round to properly thank or say goodbye to. Apologies for that. There was also so many exciting projects and things I didn’t get to see out… if you want to carry on the fundraising please do."

The comedian Jason Manford noticed and responded “Good lad. Don't be in pain though. Trust me, I'll get it to £1m, you go to sleep whenever you need to. Love JM."

Stephen’s message had been posted on 22nd April. A day later, his fund had reached £1m. By the 28th April it was at £3m. After rallying for a few days and briefly leaving hospital, Stephen died on 14th May. On 19th May, the day he was buried, the total amount raised was £4m. He'd made the front page of national newspapers, had a visit from the prime minister and been featured on national television news.

Kate Collins, director of fundraising and marketing for Teenage Cancer Trust (TCT) spoke movingly of life for her during the campaign and was frank about the organisation just trying to keep up, whilst helping Stephen’s family handle the media attention and respecting their wishes. TCT had no plan for this most welcome kind of crisis management and when asked by her CEO what the organisation’s key messages were should she be asked, Collins was forced to reply “I’ve just been asked to go on Sky News. Write down what I say and that’ll be our key messages.” Staff rallied round, cancelling their holidays and helping out whilst Stephen’s campaign was at its most unstoppable.

Responding to questions from the audience, both admitted that it would be hard to replicate that kind of success with a plan concocted in-house. TCT had come up with a ‘selfie esteem’ campaign that they thought might use the power of social media in a similar way, which didn’t do well. The reason for this? “It was real but it hadn’t come from a community” said Collins, recognising the influence that technology is having on fundraising. The last word should go to Slaughter, who offered the final bit of advice for other charities that might find themselves in a similar situation. “Be humble, be nimble, be agile, be responsive.”


Photo credit: Kyle Nishioka