To ice bucket, or not to ice bucket?


For the past month, but especially the past few weeks, we’ve been bombarded with ALS Ice Bucket Challenge videos on social media platforms. Everywhere I look, I keep reading about this ‘organic’ movement that is changing the face of not-for-profit philanthropy. Looking at the $80 million the ALS foundation has raised this year in comparison to last year’s $2.5 million (National Post), one can’t deny the financial success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign.

Watching all the videos, and reading about the success of the campaign over the past few weeks, I started wondering if a similar model could be adapted by not-for-profit theatres. The two causes are significantly different from each other by nature; yet I can’t help but wonder if there is a common denominator in the philanthropy for health equation that would activate more people to donate to the arts as well.

To consider how a similar campaign could be adopted by the arts, I started looking at why the original campaign worked in the first place. Here’s what I think really worked:

  • Easily understood and applied (demands a video on social media while dumping a bucket of ice cold water over the head, and/or a donation to the cause)
  • Doesn’t require much (only a social media account, a smartphone, a bucket, some ice and some water)
  • Limited time to act (the call to action demanded participants to complete the challenge in the next 24 hours)
  • A unifying theme (raising awareness for the cause and encouraging giving to those in need)
  • Socially activating (a challenge to participate and donate instead of only spreading awareness)
  • Psychology of social proof (the positive influence created by the shared challenge videos psychologically makes people want to do something too; there are people out there who chose to help another cause if not this cause)
  • Power of social media (demonstrates the effectiveness of grassroots marketing efforts on social media, and that social media can compete with for-profit ad budgets)
  • The timely launch that coincides with the exciting summer months
  • The fun element (not that every campaign needs to be silly and fun, but this component works because it enables the campaign to target all age ranges).

As with most successful trends, there is also a lot controversy surrounding the campaign. One might argue that this instant summer fad is not creating long-term involvement and engagement for the cause. One might also argue that in only a few months, when the cold weather is thrust upon us, no one will even remember the Ice Bucket Challenge, let alone ALS.     

So can we find our own Ice Bucket Challenge in the arts? I’m not sure we want to.

In theatre, to build audiences, we try to develop and maintain personal relationships. In this respect, can social media-based activities and challenges unrelated to the cause really help to grow a loyal audience or donor base long-term? I want to believe, no, they can’t. In this day and age where most of our time is spent in front of screens, people physically return to the theatre companies they like because they feel that they can connect with the shows, the company values, and the fellow audience members who enjoy the same kind of experience.

But an Ice Bucket-like challenge could certainly help to raise the profile for theatre in general and help to infuse a one-time boost in fundraising to the lucky conceiving organization.

So what would our musical theatre version be?

  1. Is it a “Take the Stage Challenge” inspired by Acting Up Stage’s post-show audience engagement activity of the same name? Instead of literally giving a chance to sing on a stage as we do at Acting Up Stage, would people assign a musical theatre song to their friends on social media, urging them to take the stage on Internet-verse in the next 48 hours?
  2. For those who do not want to sing, is there a version where people challenge each other to donate a prop to their favorite theatre company?
  3. Do we ask people to dress up as their favorite musical theatre character and take a photo in front of a landmark? And possibly have someone throw a pie in their face to spice things up?

Time and time again, I am reminded of campaigns like Movember, Polar Bear Plunge, and St. Baldricks Foundation as just a few examples of successful cause-related campaigns that have taken off on social media and have become world-wide annual phenomenon. These campaigns have lots of traction amongst their supporters, they bring plenty of money and attention to the cause each year, and the challenging activity is not only fun (at least for some) and more or less applicable, but is also heartily related to the cause.

So come on theatre. What are you waiting for? What is our Ice Bucket Challenge going to be? 



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