One of the big trends this summer has been the ALS Association’s remarkable success with its “ice bucket challenge,” but the very success of the campaign could pose a challenge of its own to the ALS Association and other charities.

The association, which raises funds to combat amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, has raised $94.3 million in donations since July 29, the nonprofit said Wednesday, compared to $2.7 million during the same time period last year of July 29 to August 27. The campaign has spread across social media, with people challenging each other via social networks like Facebook and Twitter to either dump a bucket of ice over their heads or send a donation to the charity’s worthwhile cause. The nearly $100 million in donations this summer has come from both existing donors and some 2.1 million new donors.

An expert on charitable giving, Eileen Heisman, CEO of the National Philanthropic Trust, which administers donor-advised funds on behalf of clients, is impressed by the phenomenal amount of money that the charity has raised. “It’s pretty unbelievable,” she said Wednesday. But she also has some concerns.

“It’s a clever event, but it may be a one-time strategy for ALS,” Heisman pointed out. “What are they going to do over time? It’s highly unlikely they can duplicate this event again. What’s the best way to make headway on ALS? Donors are usually loyal to a cause because they know and understand the mission.”

However, she is unsure how many of the new donors who have participated in the ice bucket challenge really understand the mission of the ALS Association and she is concerned the group is not going to have a lot of repeat donors. “A lot of them are giving one-time gifts and are not going to repeat them,” she noted. “Those who are repeated will have to be educated about ALS. But that’s just a portion.”

She doubts the ALS Association will be able to raise such a huge groundswell of money over and over again. “Say they get to $100 million,” she said. “Hopefully that can make a significant dent in ALS research. I hope they will be able to take the time to do that., but coming up with another clever idea that goes viral is almost impossible. Even if they have the most clever minds sitting around a table, it would be hard to make it go viral.”

Heisman praised the concept, though, pointing out that it doesn’t demand too much from participants, aside from the momentary splash of frigid water, that is. “You don’t need much time to do it,” she said. “You can do it in your own backyard or in your neighbor’s backyard. You don’t need to get those signups and pledges [for a walkathon or a marathon], which are barriers to entry. This is one where you can do a selfie, throw water on yourself and then challenge somebody.”

But she thinks that as the weather gets colder, there will be a steep decline in participation. “It’s a brilliant strategy for the summer,” she acknowledged, “but I don’t think people will keep doing it.”

Year-End Charitable Planning
As accounting and tax clients start to make decisions in the months ahead on year-end charitable giving, Heisman has some advice for them. “One of the things people need to do is figure out what causes are really important to them,” she said. “Do some Internet research. There’s GuideStar and Charity Navigator, and then you can go to the charities’ Web sites directly to see which charities are actually doing the work you want to support, and the causes that are important to you.”

She also advises getting data on how the charities are doing. “It can be qualitative or quantitative data,” said Heisman. “Both of them are really important. Assess what seems to you to be the most effective.”

If a potential donor can talk to board members at the charity, that’s even better, or at least talk to other donors who have given in the past, or call the charity directly and ask how they’re doing.

“Contact the charity and ask them for some information,” Heisman suggested. “Most charities that are quality charities will have things they can give you, whether they’re custom made or standard [documents] they give on the impact of what their donations have had in the last year. Then on the basis of that decide if you want to give to them again. My strategy is always to make fewer and larger gifts. If there are three or four mission-driven organizations that are really important to you, giving larger gifts to them instead of finding 10 is a really great strategy.”

Planning ahead is especially important with larger gifts. “If you’re going to plan to make a complicated gift, don’t do it in the middle of December,” Heisman advised. “If you’re going to give closely held stock or restricted stock or even appreciated securities, don’t start your gift after Christmas. Plan a little bit because sometimes if you have to send a gift in a liquid asset or something unusual, not all charities can accept it with the same amount of ease. If you’re going to give cash, make sure to get it postmarked and in the U.S. mail by midnight, but if you’re going to give anything else, just make sure the charity has the ability to accept it and knows what to do with it.”