Why Tech Philanthropists Have Gotten Behind the Ice Bucket Challenge

Philanthropy is hot among tech leaders these days, and this crew is especially jazzed about crowdfunding, with its potential to disrupt nonprofit funding models, pushing aside dinosaurs like the Ford Foundation and giving power to Jane Q. Donor. All of which helps explain why guys like Sergey Brin and Tim Cook have been pouring ice water over their heads. 

First, some backstory: When Pete Frates first found out about the ice bucket challenge and called on a number of his friends to help out, the 29-year-old from Massachusetts, who suffers from ALS, had no idea that it would become a viral internet phenomenon. 

The idea is pretty simple: Record yourself getting a bucket of ice dumped on your head and challenge at least three other people to either do it within 24 hours, or donate to charity. Originally, the challenge wasn’t even connected to ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Instead, those who took the challenge were supposed to name a charity of their choice. But when the challenge found its way to Frates—who is very active in the ALS community, and has come to know a number of Boston’s professional athletes since being diagnosed with ALS—it became inextricably linked with the disease. Frates got a few professional athletes like Patriots wide reciever Julian Edelman to participate, and from there, it spread to other teams and other cities, and into different circles, getting celebrities, newscasters, public officials, and thousands of ordinary people to come together to raise money and awareness for ALS.

Since the Ice Bucket Challenge took off in late July, the ALS association reports $15.6 million in donations, and the phenomenon is still trending on Twitter, so we expect that number to continue to grow in the coming weeks. The really impressive part, however, is that many of these donations are coming from 300,000 first-time donors, and are going to an organization that, last year, had a budget of just $26 million. The trick now will be to convert those first-time donors into regular supporters.

One of the latest groups to get caught up in the Ice Bucket Challenge? Current and former CEOs of major tech companies. The list of those who have taken the challenge so far includes a number of people we’ve profiled here at Inside Philanthropy, including Steve BallmerSergey BrinTim CookBill GatesMelinda GatesElon MuskLarry PageSheryl Sandberg, and Mark Zuckerberg. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, Apple Sr. VP of Worldwide Marketing Phil Schiller, and TED curator and Chris Anderson have also taken the challenge, and LinkedIn’s Reid Hoffman has been called out as well, but we haven’t seen a video from him yet.

Related: IP Funding Guide to Tech Philanthropists

Meanwhile, the challenge has spread down to the second and third tiers of the tech world, including among Boston's techies, and has even made its way to the China tech community

So why are tech leaders so gung-ho about the Ice Bucket Challenge? 

First, as we said at the start, philanthropy is hot these days in the tech world. There are various reasons for this, like the fact that many techies have been super rich for a long time and are starting to focus more on giving, as often happens. The tech world has also gotten a lot of criticism for pricing the middle class out of the Bay Area and, more broadly, for being self-serving. That's another reason to give. And as more techies give, peer pressure grows for others to get involved. 

Second, top tech leaders have gotten where they are by disrupting how things are done, and so they're often keen on trends that promise to overturn the status quo. And viral crowdfunding is certainly such a trend, with the possibility that the money of legions of ordinary donors will come to power the social sector, reducing the influence of top foundations and major individual donors. 

Third, the Ice Bucket Challenge has been spreading on social media platforms that the tech sector invented, so naturally, these folks are positive about what's happening. They're not only boosting charity with those buckets of ice water, they're boosting their own products and worldview. 

Beyond these tech-specific lessons, nonprofits can obviously learn a lot from the Ice Bucket Challenge, even if it's not exactly easy to replicate something like this phenomenon. The biggest contributing factor in the challenge’s success is that it’s fun and interactive, because really, who doesn’t want to see their friends dump a bucket of ice water on their head?

It also creates a positive form of peer pressure: How can anyone say no when it’s for a good cause? And it requires relatively little time and effort to film yourself dumping ice water on your head and post the video. So whether you’re donating, taking the challenge, or both (and we assume most of the tech philathropists we listed above did both—some even said they would donate and take the challenge in their videos), people consider it a small price to pay to see their friends douse themselves with freezing water.

Click here to see some tech philanthropists dumping ice water on their heads.