Ice Water and Holding Hands

on in Fundraising

The Ice Bucket Challenge sweeping the nation is undeniably achieving three things: raising funds, awareness, and community spirit.

Some may argue about the random nature of the public’s attention to this cause, or whether the ALS Association can hold on to any of those new $100 donors – but there’s no question the Challenge is effectively raising donations and bolstering people’s sense of participation in the public good.

Flip back a couple of decades to a 1980’s phenomenon – Hands Across America.

In many ways, the Ice Bucket Challenge is the modern-day version of that juggernaut.


Hands Across America was a 1986 attempt to “raise America’s awareness about hunger and homelessness” that also set a goal of raising $30 million to award to local hunger/homeless nonprofits.  Participants ranged from President Reagan and his wife, to celebrities like Michael Jackson, to inner city community activists.  The organizers attempted to build an unbroken chain of hand-holders from New York City to Long Beach, CA (there were gaps in the desert); 6.5 million people took part, raising $35 million ($15 million net).

Criticism of Hands Across America ranged from a diffuse focus (was the primary goal to hold hands across America, to raise funds, or to raise general awareness?), to the idea that it was promoting the expectation that meaningful charitable engagement involved donating $10 and holding hands for 15 minutes.

In fact, Hands Across America was so big, brash and bold that Cause Effective uses that event as a case study to teach the importance of setting clear special events goals, and then holding day-to-day decisions accountable to those goals to ensure that an event doesn’t unwittingly drift off course.

So, too, has criticism of the Ice Bucket Challenge come down, essentially, to what it’s achieving (i.e. it’s raising a lot of funds, but is it downgrading the call for philanthropic commitment to 15 minutes of fame?).

Perhaps that’s too high a bar to raise for what is essentially a volunteer-driven activity.

Perhaps Hands Across American, and its 3-decades-descendent the Ice Bucket Challenge, are best viewed as door-openers, first and foremost.

Our job, as the charities on the receiving end?  To put out a red carpet that helps participants keep on walking through to real involvement.

Stewardship, stewardship, stewardship – doesn’t it all come down to that, in the end?

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