Narcissism, Fundraising and Social Media

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Ice Bucket Challenge
Ice Bucket Challenge
For ALS, everyone had a bucket list.

To be an effective fundraiser you have to, above all else, believe in your mission. You have to understand that you are in sales: no matter how you dress it up, that is what you do. The difference is, when someone puts money in your hand, you’re not putting a product in theirs. You don’t have the luxury of instantly gratifying them. You’re selling an idea; you have to make someone believe in why they’re putting money in your hand. In order to do this, you have to understand something about human nature, about the motivation for individual giving, and about what makes a person want to be involved in your organization.

And let’s clarify something concerning the title of this column: in no way is narcissism an inherently bad thing. It is an undisputed part of human nature, which is why it’s important to discuss it.

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Social media is changing — has changed — many aspects of life, and fundraising is no different: it can appeal to narcissism in a way that never was possible before. The best example of this, of course, was last year’s ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. For you few cave-dwellers who don’t know, it was a social media campaign in which friends and acquaintances challenged each other via online video (the triple-dog-dare of our age) either to donate to ALS or to dump a bucket of ice water on their heads. Typically, participants made a donation (the amount announced in their video) and did the ice dump. The campaign began in mid-2014 and instantly grew into one of the most successful online campaigns ever. By August 2014, $41.8 million was raised. In the end, the campaign raised more than $115 million to fight ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.

Bill Gates doing Ice Bucket Challenge
Ice Ice Billy. (That is, Bill Gates.)

ALS is a terrible disease, a very worthy cause and I’m happy the campaign went so incredibly well. It perfectly played on our selfie culture: While a majority of the participants did not post or state their ages, I can assure you that most were a lot younger than in ALS campaigns of previous years. But younger donors don’t just want their name listed on a donor wall, a website, or in printed materials. It’s one thing to know you’re doing something for a good cause; it’s another to let all your friends know without coming off as arrogant.

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So, what’s the problem with this type of fundraising? It’s a flash in the pan. The ALS Assocation reported that more than 600,000 new donors agreed to receive future solicitations. That’s great, but it’s impossible to predict the retention rate of any of these donors, because they received something that your average donor for your average worthy cause almost never does: instant gratification. Social media bridged the gap between sales and donations, and while you don’t walk away with a product in your hand, likes and comments can be worth just as much. Yet it makes you wonder: Was it a belief in finding a cure for ALS that motivated them, or was it the act itself that made the Ice Bucket Challenge an overnight craze? How likely is such success to be repeated? We all bought into it, but how many videos of people doing silly things do you want to see? Social media is a fickle fellow: as soon as something becomes popular it turns gauche. Does the Ice Bucket Challenge have the staying power of America’s Funniest Home Videos?

Justin Timberlake, Jimmy Fallon, and Mark Zukcerberg doing Ice Bucket Challenge
There once was a man with a bucket: Justin Timberlake, Jimmy Fallon and Mark Zuckerberg.

This brings up an important question: Does the end justify the means? Is it alright to play to people’s narcissism to make money for a worthy cause?

That is a question I cannot answer.

A good year with amazing numbers is always something you want, obviously. But if you’re not meeting donors on an emotional and inspirational level, you will end up with a new group of donors, all right — a new group of donors who are disconnected, unengaged. I’d rather have a potential donor than someone who gave once and never donated again. One must fundraise for the future and for the present. They are not mutually exclusive.

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Shane Jewell
Shane Jewell is the Executive Director of the Oklahoma City Ballet. Previous to this, he was the Executive Director for the OK MOZART International Music Festival. Before his time at OK Mozart, Jewell worked at Celebrity Attractions in Tulsa presenting National Touring Broadway shows to 8 markets in the Midwest. During his tenure there he handled several roles such as: Company Manager, Technical Director and Advertising Director. He also was the Company Manager and Stage Manager for the national touring musical, The Rock & The Rabbi. Jewell currently serves on the Education and Programming Committee for Oklahoma Contemporary and is a member of the Oklahoma Presenters Network.