​Is Viral Altruism Sustainable?


The Ice Bucket Challenge of 2014 was a juggernaut that many nonprofits watched with envy. In just eight weeks, the ALS Association secured $220 million, thirteen times the amount raised by the organization in the entire year before.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord in a progressive way. It is also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Celebrities and everyday citizens flocked to Facebook to share their challenges and to talk about how fun it was to dump buckets of ice water over their heads. ALS became the fifth most popular Google search that year. But what was the long-term impact?

University of Cambridge researcher Dr. Sander van der Linden has been studying this challenge and other viral campaigns to see what nonprofits can learn.

One important result that was noted in his article in Nature Human Behaviour, “The nature of viral altruism and how to make it stick, was that very few pledges were renewed in the year that followed. There was still a 25% increase overall from 2013, but efforts to repeat the Ice Bucket Challenge only reached 1% of the 2014 levels. (One positive impact, however, was that average donor age dropped from 50 to 35 which is potentially valuable long-term.) It was also noteworthy that in all the videos shared about the challenge, only 25% mentioned ALS and only 20% were accompanied by donations.

This inability to maintain viral success is not unusual. When Facebook hosted an organ donor registration, 60% of all registrations occurred in the first two days.

Van der Linden believes that there are four criteria for creating viral success that he calls SMART. This concept is defined as using Social Network and a Moral Imperative that leads to an Affective Reaction and Transforms to action from clicking and sharing.

"Extrinsic incentives, such as competitions or network pressure, can actually undermine people's intrinsic motivation to do good by eroding moral sentiment,” says van der Linden. “Motivation to participate can get sourced from a desire to 'win' a challenge or appear virtuous rather than caring about the cause itself.”

To read more about the study results and SMART, head over to Science Daily.