The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: slacktivism or innovative philanthropy?

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: slacktivism or innovative philanthropy?

The Ice Bucket Challenge is quickly on its way to becoming one of the biggest internet crazes of the past decade; so much so, in fact, that you’re probably already sick of hearing about it. This alone says a lot about the successes of the charitable campaign launched during the summer in the US  in favor ofthe ALS Association.

The concept is (fairly) simple: dump a bucket of ice-water on your head, have a friend film your performance, post and share the video online and nominate other friends to do the same. The point of the challenge is to raise awareness about a cause and give cash to a charity. Some ambiguity exists as to whether you’re supposed to do the challenge instead of donating, or do both. But this comment might be beside the post when you consider the sheer volume of donations the ALS Association has received over the past month.

The overall response to this campaign has been huge. The ALS Association – who raised just $2,5 Million dollars in contributions last year – has already surpassed the $100 Million mark for 2014. Yes, that’s forty times more. Ice bucket challenge participants have so far included celebrities, politicians, sports personalities and, who knows, maybe a few of your friends and relatives.

But even though this campaign has been a huge success in terms of numbers, there are at least three reasons to be skeptical.

Is the challenge taking attention away from other causes?

ALS (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) is a neurodegenerative disorder also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease and Charcot Disease. Most patients die from respiratory failure within 5 years, and no cure has yet been found. It is also relatively rare (about 8 000 cases in France today). So even though the link between ALS and an ice bucket isn’t always clear, the campaign has surely drawn additional attention in order to fund research to fight this wicked disease. But is this where public attention and medical research is most needed?

ALS is far from one of the top 20 fatal diseases worldwide, and compared to others, it’s also relatively well funded. Cancer and heart disease are far more likely kill us, and yet these causes are relatively ill-funded. There are also charitable causes that need more urgent attention, like the Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa or the humanitarian crisis in Syria. If donors have limited dollars to give, which is expected, the popularity of the ice bucket challenge could be taking funds away from causes that arguably need them more. But it is very tricky to prove funding cannibalism.

The ALS Association has 100 million dollars in the bank - and now what?

The ALS Association is a prominent American non-profit organization fighting ALS, but it never had to deal with this much money before. What are they going to do with the funds? What percentage will go to cover administration costs? How much will go to research? What impact will it have on the realities of the disease and its sufferers? How will it be measured? The answers to these questions are still unclear. And it’s almost certain that most of ice bucket challenge participants neglected to the do the necessary due-diligence and background check before giving. 

If the public blindly give to causes because they are “trendy”, this is a major issue in and of itself. Choosing a recipient organization requires thoughtful consideration and at least a little bit of research.

Is this a one-off, or is the Ice Bucket Challenge creating a new donor base?

While famous wealthy philanthropists like Bill Gates participated, many if not most of the ice bucket challengers that we see online are first-time donors. Many are young and getting involved because it’s fun and trendy There are critics who lament the ad hoc, ephemeral nature of the challenge. Far from being ambassadors or volunteers for the cause, ice bucket donors are unlikely to engage beyond writing a $40 check (the average donation). Other trendy campaigns like Movember do a better job at attracting repeat participants, year after year.

But who knows? This may just be the experience that triggers first-time givers into further philanthropic involvement in general. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has an undeniable quality: it is fun. Driving home feelings of moral obligation and guilt don’t always work when it comes to attracting new donors, especially younger generations. It has another virtue: it relies on social ties and represents a public experience. Yes, dumping water on your head is pretty stupid and yes, many participants indulge their ego in the process. But you cannot deny the amazing collective success of this campaign. Hopefully, it will challenge other nonprofit organizations to get more creative and light-spirited in their fundraising efforts. Using the power of social networks, we may get much larger portions of the population involved in philanthropy.  The bucket looks half full to me.

ESSEC Knowledge on X