Why “Going Viral” Shouldn’t Be Your Goal

The #ALSIceBucketChallenge has been a tremendous success no matter how one might define the term.  The challenge began in July and, within the last month, the awareness of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease as it is still known, is sky high.  In addition, ALS is now reporting that the challenge has raised almost $80 million dollars from over 1.7 million donors.  During the same period last year (July 29-August 25), ALS raised a meager $2.5 million.  Simply stunning numbers.

In the rush to congratulate ALS for their social media success, I have heard non-profit leaders lament, “I wish our organization could come up with something like this that goes viral!”  And it is understandable that others would want the same success that ALS has enjoyed.  Those are eye-popping numbers.  But, I’m still not convinced that “going viral,” should be a goal.  In fact, I’m quite certain that it should not be.

In today’s tech-vernacular, “going viral,” means,  “becoming very popular by circulating quickly from person to person, especially through the Internet.”  Clear enough.  And becoming popular isn’t really a bad idea.  We all want our organizations to become more popular and for the importance of our missions to circulate quickly from person to person.  This all sounds pretty good.

However, upon a closer examination of the word, “virus,” one finds definitions that focus on the idea that the infectious agent (or a popular idea) only finds life within a host.  Think of the viruses that spread illness from person to person.  Or even a computer virus.  They need a host in order to live and replicate.  Without a host, the virus dies.

In a very similar and sad way, many causes that have employed viral promotion through social media have not focused on the importance of their mission.  Instead, they have traded the importance of understanding and supporting their mission for a viral activity that makes the host/participant the most important aspect of giving.  Where the focus should be on mission, values, and vision, it becomes about the viral activity and, more importantly, the host/participant.

The act of pouring ice water over one’s head does not have a meaningful, natural, or understandable connection to eradicating ALS.  Neither does it cause the participants nor viewers to become more educated about ALS and the mission of organizations that fight the disease.  It does, though, encourage a focus on the host – the person getting cold water poured over their head.  Because, as is the case with any virus, it’s the host that matters most.

For us in development work, it is easy to go down this path of lifting up the importance of the host/donor.  It’s easier work than meaningfully engaging or educating someone and it makes the donor feel good in the moment.  But placing the donor at the center of our work leads to problems.   I have written before about the wrong-headedness of “donor-centrism.”  Simply put, our donors don’t belong at the center of our work, our missions do.  The best and most successful development efforts are mission-centered and donor-engaged, not vice versa.

Compared to the “viral model” of fundraising, a “mission model” of fundraising encourages us to do our hard and important work as educators and engagers.  When our our central theme is mission and we invite donors to be a part of that mission, we win long-term.  We may not raise $80 million in one month, but we build sustainability.  And, once the ice bucket challenge runs its course, I sadly doubt ALS will raise anywhere close to that amount again.  You see, there is another problem with viral campaigns – they don’t last.  Anyone seen any good pictures of #planking lately?


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