Throwing Cold Water on Ice Bucket Philanthropy

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Amid the amazing viral adoption of the ALS ice bucket challenge, which has generated significant dollars for Lou Gehrig’s disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) charities—the ALS Association, in particular—some observers have raised concerns. Emmanuel College research fellow William MacAskill who specializes on issues of moral philosophy and runs an advisory service on choosing ethical careers, wrote the following for Quartz:

“The ice bucket challenge is a symbol for much that’s wrong with contemporary charity: a celebration of good intentions without regard for good outcomes. It is iconic for what I call donor-focused philanthropy—making charitable giving about the giver, rather than about those who need help.”

MacAskill’s argument rests on two concerns. His first is “that it encourages a culture of great praise for small gifts.” He suggests tactics like the ice bucket challenge are “undermining a charitable attitude according to which there are serious problems in the world that desperately need our help, and that won’t be solved by a garbage pail, a video camera, and some frosty water.” It’s a strategy for donors to feel good (and get a little attention and props), rather than doing something more serious.

His second point more directly addresses the issue of the seriousness of the charitable decision, that such “donor-focused philanthropy…regards all causes as equal…We should reward the charities that we believe do the most good, not those that have the best marketing strategy, otherwise the most successful charities will be those that are best at soliciting funds, not those that are best at making the world a better place.”

Writing for Time, Jacob Davidson, whose father died of ALS, found the ice bucket campaign initially attractive, but then had misgivings. “When I looked closer, I became uneasy,” Davidson wrote. “No wonder it took me weeks to learn the Ice Bucket Challenge was linked to ALS. Most of its participants, including Kennedy and Today’s Matt Lauer, didn’t mention the disease at all. The chance to jump on the latest trend was an end in itself.”

Davidson also mentioned the somewhat negative structure of the campaign, that if you choose not to donate, you dump a bucket of ice water on your head. “The challenge even seems to be suggesting that being cold, wet, and uncomfortable is preferable to fighting ALS,” he noted. If the strategy of dumping cold water was meant to increase awareness of the disease, the strategy has a built-in contradiction: “ALS needs all the awareness it can get, but somehow I doubt many learned a whole lot from contextless tweets of wet celebs smiling and laughing,” he added.

Robert Frank, a well known professor of economics at Cornell University, suggests that the ice bucket campaign may be subject to some form of donor fatigue: “It doesn’t require any particular talent to do it, or any commitment or time,” Frank told Sarah Gray in Salon. “They just have to endure the unpleasantness. So I’m skeptical about this one. I don’t think it’ll last long for that reason.”

Frank called the ice bucket challenge a successful “gimmick.” Victor Fiorillo, a reporter for Philadelphia magazine, called it “stupid,” but added, “like many stupid ideas, it’s working.” Writing for Slate, Will Oremus has started a campaign against the ice bucket challenge, suggesting that people not get a bucket, not dump ice water on their heads, not film themselves and don’t post it on social media, but simply “donate the damn money, whether to the ALS Association or to some other charity of your choice.”

Like MacAskill and Davison, Oremus makes this argument:

“It’s hard to shake the feeling that, for most of the people posting ice bucket videos of themselves on Facebook, Vine, and Instagram, the charity part remains a postscript. Remember, the way the challenge is set up, the ice-drenching is the alternative to contributing actual money. Some of the people issuing the challenges have tweaked the rules by asking people to contribute $10 even if they do soak themselves. Even so, a lot of the participants are probably spending more money on bagged ice than on ALS research.

“As for ‘raising awareness,’ few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.”

Writing for the Guardian, Suzanne McGee addressed the various criticisms, particularly the notion that giving to ALS as a result of the ice bucket challenge isn’t sustainable and takes away from other worthy, but less fundraising-creative charities. “Alas for our society: as you can see by the booming donation numbers, we’re programmed to respond to just this kind of stunt,” McGee wrote.

“To the extent that the ALS Association has finally found a way to transform a vague awareness of the disease into something viral, and turn it into a source of funds, good for them. No one fussed too much when pink ribbons and yellow wristbands started multiplying,” McGee added. “A once-obscure organization has become surprisingly effective at fundraising and will be able to do much, much more for its beneficiaries. If all nonprofits become more creative, maybe it will inspire more of us to ramp up our giving.”

Does it matter whether the charitable giving is thoughtfully considered or simply the result of a fundraising gimmick? That’s the real core issue here.—Rick Cohen

  • Justin

    Give me a break. People are donating and you are bitching. Not everyone shares your altruistic motivations for donating. For some it’s “out of sight, out of mind” and this campaign had done a nice job of putting it in sight and in mind.

    We should be happy enough that people are opening their wallets even if it’s because of clever marketing and not concern ourselves with why people are giving their money.

  • Rachel Brookhart

    I think the author isn’t taking into consideration the fact that most of the people participating in the challenge wouldn’t have given anything if not for the challenge. We nonprofit folks live in our own little world where we think we know the “right” and “wrong” ways to give. And yes, the ice bucket challenge has some things wrong with it if you are looking to educate people on truly impactful giving. But I think there is some good in getting people to do anything at all. It may be brief and fleeting, but they have done something, which is a lot better than nothing.

    Will the challenge burn out quickly? Of course. That’s what everything does these days. But in that short period, it has made a lot of money for ALS and raised awareness, and I won’t complain about that, no matter how flawed the vehicle.

  • Tim Wallace

    Does it matter whether the charitable giving is thoughtfully considered or simply the result of a fundraising gimmick? Anyone who has raised funds for a living can tell you that the first gift to any organization is rarely very thoughtfully considered. Most people give because someone encourages them to. They typically give a trivial (for them) amount. The education of a donor about the cause usually starts after that first gift. If ALS is doing a good job of thanking the people who give and educating them in the process about ALS and what they are doing about it, then all of these complaints about the trivial nature of the ice bucket challenge are terribly misguided.

  • Nathan Slovin

    It’s about the donor….

    While I agree that there is an element of ”what’s in it for me” in this campaign there are also elements of “why didn’t I think of this first” in the critique of the Ice Bucket Challenge.

    Charities and foundations looking for new ways to engage current and future donors almost always are looking for that secret key to acquiring a donor and then keeping them long term. How do we do this? By only focusing on those who are afflicted and struggling and not by appealing to the selfish interests of people in today’s society who are fortunate enough to be able to dump some cold water and make a donation? Well we are all struggling in this unpredictable fast paced world and if we want to connect we might need to appeal to prospective donors in a more personal way.

    Maybe we don’t want to focus that way right now. Maybe the way to engage your donors in the first place is through some levity, some self-promotion; how many people paid $1 to kiss the beautiful woman for charity or paid a $1 to dunk the teacher into the pool of water in the past; and how many people in today’s world would post a “selfie” for charity? Why is this different, but more importantly “why is this wrong?”

    Next weekend my wife and I are playing golf in a charity golf outgoing with her parents. We chose to play because we like golf, we love playing golf with them and it helps a good cause. Interestingly if we were not playing with them we would not be playing and we would not be aware of the cause; which at some time may become a cause we support more directly as well, but we are introduced to this cause through two pretty significant “what’s in it for me” benefits.

    Those quoted in this article fail to acknowledge what the overall awareness will mean to the cause and that this campaign positions the organization for a series of important “next steps”; follow-up & more complete engagement with many first time donors; like the next awareness campaign (walking across hot coals); or maybe what’s next are videos of people afflicted with ALS taking the challenge or expressing their thanks for raising awareness.

    By the way, stay tuned for my video later today and my financial contribution.

  • Kate

    I try to be very aware of what foundations are spending their money on–and many–Pink Ribbons and such–spend their money on marketing and law suits. It seems that ALS is benefiting from FREE publicity that started from a friend, who, seeing his friend suffering from ALS, decided not to just sit by, but to do something about it in a fun and positive way. Many of us don’t brag about the contributions we make each year–I make mine, but I did the ice bucket challenge as a way to give a little bit extra to a cause i knew very little about before this, AND to encourage others to look out for their friends and what they might be dealing with, and to encourage them to contribute to organizations that are out there making a difference in the prevention/research of those diseases/ailments/whatever. I see nothing wrong with this whatsoever.

  • violet

    Stop being so hateful……….. People are having fun while helping. Even my teenage girls are involved with their school, and they have donated their allowance to Als….
    Go bitch somewhere else.

  • Christine Doby

    All good points – though missing one: it is entirely possible that this is a situation where giving is BOTH thoughtfully considered and gimmicky.

    It’s okay if the givers have fun doing it. It’s okay if people spend a few dollars trying to raise more dollars and awareness. It’s okay if it’s not a long-term strategy.

    And it’s even okay if some celebrities who need their faces plastered across media don’t know or say why they doing what they are doing. In fact, it doesn’t even matter if professionalized philanthropists and those who write about philanthropy don’t like it and/or don’t approve and/or have their own suggestions.

    Because there are people — I know about a dozen of them myself — who are giving thoughtfully AND are grateful to be having a little bit of fun and silliness as we do so.

  • Marian

    The ice bucket nay sayers have forgotten the basics of altruism. People give for various reasons: genuine desire to do good, a passion for something that has touched them personally, and, yes, ego. If it wasn’t for ego, colleges and hospital would not have buildings or halls named for a person. And they wouldn’t have the money that paid for that. You don’t know much about the uniqueness of human beings if you think you could “serious them all up” and make them give for the good of their fellow man. If humans were like that as a group, we wouldn’t need nonprofits at all. A fundraiser succeeds when it is memorable, when people get to laugh or share an action. The bloom will come off the ice bucket piece quickly, as things do that have gone viral on social media, but in the meantime a nonprofit has benefitted from the shared experience of people having fun for a cause. Human beings at their best.

  • Janet Rechtman

    Thank you for this article! Divorcing donations from charitable intent is just one more example of our culture’s ability to deracinate and monetize EVERYTHING!

  • Alex

    Of course we want charitable giving to be the result of thoughtful consideration and an understanding of the issue at hand, but to assume this new string of viral campaigns – ice bucket, wrist bands, ribbons – is the start of ‘giving for a gimmick’ isn’t entirely accurate either.

    There have always been donors who give without much consideration or understanding, and I would bet that the donors who currently give thoughtful consideration to their donation to the ALS Association will continue doing so. I would also bet that of the thousands of new donors who have given as a result of the ice bucket challenge, a good handful of them will become thoughtful donors. As for building awareness, the first thing someone needs to know about ALS is that there is a disease called ALS. In an ideal world every video would tell us more, but at least this is a start.

    At best, all the criticism of this type of fundraising encourages some donors to consider their gift more thoughtfully, and maybe it encourages some who were going to do the challenge to just give money instead. More likely, it actually discourages potential donors from giving and is much more harmful than videos of well meaning individuals dumping ice water on their heads, or wearing a yellow wristband and a pink ribbon.

  • Saiya

    Providing an analysis of the motivations and the short term and long term affects of this type of marketing is not “bitching” it is providing an educational look at the movement. Just because someone disagrees with your point of view does not make their argument a bitch session. “Out of Sight Out of Mind, interesting you use that Justin because the only thing in sight was the bucket of water… little to no mention of ALS, no education on the topic at all and the vast majority of videos did not link to the organization that needed support. It also sets a precedent and a high bar, whats next Justin? Walk on Hot Coals for Cancer (no information about which cancer or which organization, where your money will go and who it will benefit provided)! I am happy that people donated, not happy about what this means for philanthropy and not happy that the author wrote a great peice about the campaign and its associated concerns that many are feeling in charitable circles, and I am disappointed that such an analysis threatened you so much you decided to attack and demean people for their legitimate concern and/or interest.

  • Andy

    You knew it wouldn’t be long before outlets, taking their cues from the Slate/Salon types, ran with the anti-popular “hot take”. Are there issues with such fundraising gimmicks? Of course. But, Rick’s last line gets to the heart:

    “Does it matter whether the charitable giving is thoughtfully considered or simply the result of a fundraising gimmick? That’s the real core issue here.”

    I guess, if I’m living with ALS and a cure is found or is closer to being found because of an unexpected and unbudgeted infusion of cash, my answer is not at all.

    Lean back on the research, NPQ, we know that small incremeants of donations from a large number of people does not hurt overall giving trends…and we also know that ALSA has seen a huge increase in donations and awareness for a relatively lesser known disease. I really don’t think they, or anyone else, cares how much the individuals participating may or may not have spent on a bag of ice.

  • Robin Lynn Grinnell

    I had misgivings, too, until I did some research. What I have discovered (through a variety of articles posted online) is that 1. the ice bucket challenge was going on for different reasons before the ALS folks adopted it. So, while some folks are invited to a challenge that is specifically for ALS, others are invited for other reasons entirely. 2. People aren’t explaining the “rules” correctly. (and if they’re not in the NP universe, they have no idea that they’re missing anything) If you’re “challenged” through the ALS challenge, you’re encouraged to donate $10 (or more) if you accept the challenge and $100 (or more) if you decline. If you are like me, and don’t want to disappoint your friends, you will choose to accept the challenge (this issue is personal to me) AND up the ante on the donation. People are having fun. Some money is being raised. In the wake of everything else going on in the world, this isn’t one of the battles I choose to fight today.

  • Simone Joyaux

    Read The Agitator ( – written by Roger Craver and Tom Belford. Craver is one of the gurus of fundraising.

    I’m getting tired of the insults about donors and donor centrism. I’m getting tired of the fact deniers who don’t seem to understand that giving to charity is a personal and emotional act. And that is just fine. Stop with the attempt to promote this analysis of which charity deserves more and which charity needs more and which charity is better. These are personal choices. Neuroscience tells us that human decisions are based on emotions. That’s okay. That’s good. That’s life.

  • Heather

    I’m sorry – but MANY more people out there are now more informed and aware of ALS, and honestly, after awhile it doesn’t even need to be spoken about in a vid, because EVERYONE knows about this now and why it’s being done.

    And it should be noted: it STARTED as an either/or…but it has morphed into more. Nearly all of the celebrities and people who have done the Ice Bucket Challenge HAVE either donated after they’ve done it OR the person challenging them has donated BECAUSE those people did their challenge. In the end, money was raised. This is where all the money comes from. So I think those in this article who criticize are definitely in the wrong, and really need to look at how times have changed. It’s not just “Here, give me money we need it” with long extensive speeches & heartstring-tugging testimonials anymore. You have to find new, innovative and trendy ways to raise money and awareness, because there are so many foundations, organizations and other groups who ask for donations. And everyone cannot give to each and every one.

    Who cares if the spotlight is on the person in the vid for a short amount of time? They just raised MONEY for that organization. And you complain about that? They sound rather petty and – dare I say – irritated because it was not thought of by any of them.

    As a Development Coordinator for a small foundation, I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes we HAVE to come up with more outlandish, trendy ways to raise money – because there are so many other groups who are doing the same. Let’s face it, that’s the way it’s going now. Either get with it or get out of the way, because if you can’t keep up – you WILL lose fundraising dollars.

  • Valerie Lambert

    I agree…This gimmicky method is a flash in the pan. Granted, it will raise more than buckets at a stoplight, or even a mention during halftime at a game, but it’s all “I-wonder-what-I-donated-to” money, with little or no message about the organization or its mission reaching the donor — who will NOT be cultivated, nor give again.

    That’s a LOT of staff time, energy and expense for a bunch of one-time donors at low levels. I’d much rather invest in cultivating people who CARE about the cause and have a tendency to repeat their gift in the future.

  • amy

    Stop over thinking this! I bet that the ALS people didn’t actually conceive of this, and it just happened — like all good viral marketing. Of course this isn’t sustainable, of course this is a flash in the pan stunt, but isn’t it OK? Isn’t it great that now more people have gained at least a little bit of awareness for ALS? Trying to dissect this whole thing from the perspective of “good philanthropy” is dumb…this is a marketing campaign that might raise a little bit of money. I think its great! Yes, it will be copied, probably unsuccessfully, and then stuff like this will die, and we will come up with something else. Its what we do!

  • Rachel Brookhart

    I wrote too quickly! I see that the author doesn’t necessarily share this point of view. Apologies.

  • Keenan Wellar

    Clearly, some people feel that anything that generates donations is positive. It doesn’t matter if people understand the cause, what positive or negative messages a campaign might deliver, or if their motivation is to help others or to help themselves. If the money rolls in, all is well.

    I am one of the idealistic fools that would like to see a direct connection between donors, causes, and results, and do find it genuinely concerning that the non-profit sector is becoming increasingly about stunts and gimmicks.

    I am troubled that this apparently does not bother many of my colleagues in the sector, as that leaves few people left to care.

    We can give in now and just post cat videos to YouTube with ad campaigns, or we can contribute a perspective that indicates we do actually care about a connection between how we generate resources to do work that actually changes lives and communities for the better.

  • Hildie Lipson

    This is also another reminder to think about what would happen if a LOT of money suddenly came to your nonprofit. What would you do with it? What is ALS going to do with it? Does it all go to research? Did they have a plan for the day when a ‘bucket load” of donations appeared in their in-box? Do any of us? Good luck to the ^SALS Association in thinking through the ramifications of this gimmick.

  • Virginia (Ginny) Ball

    For the first time I hear so many people asking “what is ALS?”
    This marketing has brought more attention to ALS than any other disease I have seen.
    it reminds me of the success of the March of Dimes with their connection to polio–and we found a cure!!!
    I hope and pray that we will find a cure for ALS with this advertising.
    Anyone who has known someone with ALS will agree that the diagnosis is like a bucket of cold water thrown at you–devastating!

    I honestly think that with this advertising EVERYONE will know ALS and we WILL find a cure–just probably not in time to save one of my dearest friends.

  • Mike

    Most of the videos I have seen have had the wrong initials/name or worse no reference. None of them discussed the disease.
    Imagine how much they would get if the information was actually correct and an address or website to give was provided.

    Next year when their fundraising results come in and they are back down they will say. Well that was nice while it lasted. I am glad they are successful but concerned about the effect on the industry. I wonder the percent of funds raised will go to beef up their fundraising vs research. I hope they can turn some into annual donors but unlikely.

    Another peave is banks having votes for dollars to select grant winners]. Instead of their giving committee actually researching and giving to those deserving (big or small), they allow votes to determine the winners with the result of giving only to the largest networked organization. That is a pure marketing ploy on behalf of the banks and an easy way out of due diligence. ya its fun and raises a stir but what if every business did it that way?

  • Brooke

    It sounds to me like you are saying, If you can not give a large amount do not bother to give. It is really too much paper work for us to be bothered with. REALLY!!!
    I volunteer with different organizations and I have put in hundreds of hours of work raising funds. Often the returns have been small but the organizations have always been grateful. Every donation, no matter how small has always been appreciated. Yes the large, repeat donations make life easier but life is not always easy especially for the people that receive the benefits.

  • Joy

    I want to say that I give to a charity on a regular basis. I believe strongly in the work they do. On the other hand that does not mean I would not donate to the ALS bucket challenge. I love the idea. I disagree with people that are saying it is not raising awareness. I had heard of ALS before but really knew little about it. Now I have taken the time to research it. I like the fact that so many people from all different social and economic levels are becoming involved. There are no barriers to who can participate. Adults, children, grandparents, everyone can take part. Awareness is the first step towards caring. It is true that many people may only donate one time but many others will learn more about the cause and continue to donate or continue to talk about the event and possible spark the interest of someone else that will become a donor. You never can tell where donations or help will come from.
    There is nothing wrong with creating awareness and funds while having fun.More people will take part if it is fun. It is true that dumping the ice water over your head may not last long, but people will talk about it for a long time.

  • George Warren

    How old is Rick Cohen? I imagine him shaking his fist and telling us all to get off his lawn. The author makes correct observations but completely misses the point.
    1. Social media and the internet have changed the way we do business and interact. Why not embrace this for charity as well? Does it focus on the person, sure. And I like them a little more for it. Is it about them, maybe. Is the color of their money different or wrong?
    2. The volume of small contributors with this kind of gimmick will be substantial. Maybe it won’t stick around as long as Jerry Lewis Telethon, but I’m looking forward to the next silly thing my friends and I can do.
    3. Charity cannot ignore marketing and social media any longer. Welcome to the internet age!! Better late than never.

    One thing the author didn’t mention was safety. This again is a strategy to hold on to old ways and fear the internet, but it bares mentioning. With the rapid awareness of this campaign, my guess is there are many ALS fraud websites set up to fleece people. While this is an issue, we need to deal with fraud rather than spread fear about this program.

  • Keenan Wellar

    Great example. The Jerry Lewis Telethon was horribly abusive and exploitive. But it “raised awareness” and made money, and evidently for a lot of people, that’s what matters.

  • Alissa

    Yes, of course it matters that it is a gimmick!!! I think the challenge is a wonderful feat in social media, in that it brought the spotlight to a much-deserved cause. However, how many people are doing the challenge to raise awareness/funds for ALS vs how many people are doing it because it’s the newest “trend.” How many people who dump a bucket of water on their head this year will donate to the ALS Association next year? Or, spread the word about the disease? Or, get a friend or family member to volunteer to help someone with ALS?! As someone who raises money for nonprofits for a living, how do they expect to sustain this giving? What happens next when the newest internet trend hits. . ?!

  • Alissa

    Does it actually raise awareness when few can actually identify what ALS even is after they complete the challenge?

  • Alissa

    And, as a “nonprofit folk” myself, I applaud this as a great social media feat. But what happens to funds next year when everyone has moved on to the newest internet trend?!?

  • MV

    I feel the need to backlash against the backlash, so here’s a response to this essay, submitted respectfully.

    I’ve never seen a critique of the “ice bucket challenge” that “holds water” and I don’t think this one does either. Every critique I have seen commits the fallacy of the false dilemma. “But racism is more important!” or “But cancer kills more people!” We can do more than one thing at a time.

    The author doesn’t like the tactic of “donor-based” philathropy. How is he proposing to support ALS patients? Is he a neurobiologist with creative ideas about what’s killing motor neurons? If not, how exactly does he want to help? This is not an issue like racism where we all can make a direct difference by changing our own behavior, and if we were going to write to representatives about ALS we’d write “please allocate more money for research.” It *should* be donor-based philanthropy in this case. It’s the job of the ALS organizations who now have resources beyond their wildest dreams to do the patient-based work.

    He claims that there is no regard for ALS patients and as an example says that The Today Show’s Matt Lauer didn’t even mention ALS when he dumped water on his head. True but intellectually dishonest – Lauer mentioned a Hospice organization that he chose to donate to instead. But most of us don’t need Matt Lauer – “ALS” and “ALS disease” have been top search terms on google for weeks. The author cites someone who claims “No wonder it took me weeks to learn the Ice Bucket Challenge was linked to ALS.” Really? Weeks? It was only linked to ALS three weeks before he wrote that (so he must have seen and been baffled by some of the very early videos), and I’d say 85% of the videos I’ve seen mention ALS directly. He must not have been trying very hard.

    A common critique is that people who take the challenge are doing so to “get out of donating.” I have literally never seen an example of this. As one case, here’s what Justin Timberlake wrote when he challenged Jimmy Fallon & The Roots:
    “You’ve got 24 hours to donate AT LEAST $100 or douse yourself with ice. (Or both. We did both…and then we donated a bunch more. It’s such a good cause.) To donate:
    The average “challenge” related-gift to ALSA is $46.25. People aren’t dumping to get out of donating. During August 2014 they’ve raised $40mil – more than twice what they raised in all of 2012.

    The author is a making a tactic vs. strategy distinction, and he wants a change in tactics. But the strategy – get more money for researching a devastating disease – is working extremely well.

  • Randy

    All interesting points and I appreciate the views, My concern relates more to the methodology. Has it helped ALS? Numbers look like it. But lets consider the path it sets us on. Basically it requires some sort of stunt if you will to get attention. Seems harmless? However even with the current ice bucket stunt 4 firemen have been injured one critically as they attempted to “pump it up a bit” with a fire hose in a raised bucket that hit a power line. Cost for the fireman who is now in an intensive care burn unit? Could be a million and in all likely hood his career is over. Saw one where a girl was hit in the face with a full ice chest and everyone thought it was funny but her I guess. Is that ALS’s fault? Not technically but it does demonstrate the risk of “stunt” themed events coupled with human nature. Since the ALS drive has been successful I suppose what is the next stunt that will get attention and how outlandish or even dangerous does it have to be to get that attention? How many charities are thinking of stunts as we speak. I have no clue but do remember that several “hit” TV shows went out of business as the stunts got more outlandish. Blame it on human nature I guess and maybe it will never get to that level but that path does concern me.

  • Phil

    You feel this article is ‘hateful?’ That’s a very aggressive overreaction. The videos are ‘fun,’ but ALS is not.

  • Gayle L. Gifford, ACFRE

    I’m with you on this. Based on my calculation, the ALS Association has already received more funds than the national organization and all of its chapters combined received last year by over $30 million.

    While they are the beneficiaries of a donor-launched windfall, I still hope they have a very good plan in place for how they will use this money, now and into the future. And as I suggested in my recent blog post they’ll need to get out quick to the donors, public and media to explain how they’ll be using these funds. If not, I fear that they will be in the press next year with exposes of how they failed to spend the money.

  • Cheryl Weiner

    How do we know that people don’t have an increased awareness of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis? I personally know three people who watched Anthony Carbajal’s very personal ice bucket challenge video. They were so moved to learn more that they watched, “So Much, So Fast,” a documentary that follows five years in the life of a young man diagnosed with ALS. As a nonprofit leader, I found their response inspiring! Aren’t we shaming everyone because Matt Lauer and some others failed to mention ALS when thousands did? Let’s not be too quick to judge. It’s far too soon to know what the long-term outcomes of this social media blitz will be.

  • Judy Levine

    For people whose memories go back that far, I am reminded of that 1980’s “jack-of-all-trades” fundraiser Hands Across America (see Meaning many things to many people, with clarity for none, it nonetheless raised $35 million and started a lot of people on their way to a career in the nonprofit human services sector.

    The key for a nonprofit is helping the donor walk through the door that opened just a crack through an extreme-broad-based fundraising activity. That’s our job as fundraisers – the #icebucketchallenge is a hello. The next step in the exchange is ours.

  • Carolyn M. Appleton, CFRE

    This is a thoughtful discussion about the merits and drawbacks of the Ice Bucket Challenge. I for one believe there are many ways to raise money, and this turned out to be a highly effective campaign that I enjoyed watching unfold online. I was proud of those who accepted the challenge! Never for a moment was I confused about the cause being promoted.

    To anyone who suggests that ALS is a less worthy cause than others, that remark is made in exceptionally poor taste. I do know someone who died from it, and whole-heartedly support continued research to stop ALS.

    Deborah Kotz has written a helpful article for the Boston Globe your readers might enjoy, “Will $94 Million Raised From Ice Bucket Challenge Yield Cure for ALS?” (August 28): ield-cure-for-als/SMDz3n4GxByCZ9RaAVtZ2J/story.html.

    Innovation in fundraising is something I welcome! The Ice Bucket Challenge is just such an endeavor, and I congratulate the inventors.

  • Dave

    The backlash is not spurred by morality or a desire to see more people actually care about philanthropy. Despite the academic language, the objections are clearly ones of basic jealousy and others failure to raise funds via social media. They may cloak it in concerns about the “best charities” not getting the most funds, but when has that ever been true? Is the moralistic attack claiming that the ALS Association is undeserving? Of course not…they just fear that “undeserving” charities may raise more funds with clever marketing strategies. That has been the case when direct mail began and every other innovative approach.

    The whining that there is no educational component is absurd. It is a fund raising strategy, and a supremely effective one. IF the moralists wish for better education, then create better educational strategies. The vast majority of Americans give little to medical research, and this may start their giving trajectory. Stop whining and get to work motivating more people to give.

  • Keenan Wellar

    I’ve been using social media for social change before you could even attend a workshop called “Social Media for Social Change” and a lot of concerns expressed about the ice bucket phenomenon are not to do with jealousy of tactics or jealous of financial gain. To lump all expressions of concern as whining and jealousy stifles important debate in the charity sector, including the confusion that we are in the business of raising money, rather than making the world a better place. It’s the typical means and ends discussion that some people find important, and others apparently see as meaningless.

  • Dave

    Keenan, thank you for your important critique of my post. It could easily be seen as a means to stifle discussion of means and ends. I regret my short sighted use of pejorative terms. That said, the discussion of means and ends in the critiques of this viral phenomenon are still confused. The critiques above I noted are four:
    1. Great praise for small gifts with donors feeling “good” rather than doing good
    2. Regarding all causes as equally worthy, thus rewarding good marketers rather than those that do good.
    3. It has no awareness component nor does it educate the audience
    4. It takes away funds from other worthy charities who are less creative.
    My responses:
    1. In fact, there is no praise involved, just “great” (ie. numerous) small responses to a marketing campaign. The campaign has been wildly successful at raising funds for ALS charities. And if it has been in small gifts that often adds new donors to the charitable universe.
    2. The value of any cause has always been determined by the donor via their investment of time and money. Marketing merely helps the donor decide to express their preferences. If that means that giving is “donor focused” then the critique applies to all charitable solicitations and is moot.
    3. Some charities “do good” via education, some solely by research, and some serve human need directly. Some have multiple missions. Critiquing a charity successfully raising money for research as not having enough “education” in a social media campaign attacks other valid charitable purposes by super-imposing one outcome (education) over all others. It is unwise and says more about the critic than the mission.
    4. This critique is the one that is most unsettling to me. If one sees the philanthropic world as one pie that never expands, then every solicitation of funds is an attempt to grab more of the pie for the charity, and thus, takes away funds from all others. The other option is to see the charitable giving world as able to expand as needed, so one groups success does not harm all others…merely increased the size of the pie.

  • Keenan Wellar

    Thanks Dave. I work in a sector where there is a lot of concern about how people with intellectual disabilities are portrayed (often as part of fundraising and marketing campaigns) because often these portrayals contradict goals of inclusion, equality, acceptance, value, etc. and so although there is not a direct relationship to the particular gadgetry of the ice bucket, social change is complicated and having an engaged citizenry is pretty much the only solution.

    There can be more consequences to marketing gadgetry than the positive ones that you cite. There can be real harm that is done.

    With respect to the ice bucket challenge, it will be interesting to see the long-term evidence about what change it creates – as donors and/or engaged citizens. My own formal and informal educating in non-profit marketing reveals mostly that people remember the stunt and not the cause, nor does it lead to any sort of significant engagement in understanding the cause or investment (personal or financial) in the charity sector.

    The question Rick Cohen asked in his article: “Does it matter whether the charitable giving is thoughtfully considered or simply the result of a fundraising gimmick? That’s the real core issue here” is a good one, in my opinion. To me, it does matter, because my own involvement in the sector is not for the purpose of encouraging donations, it’s for the purpose of changing my community for the better – cash is part of the means to that end for sure, but if what we celebrate most is who can compete best with cat videos, I think we do risk further issues of mission drift for organizations and the sector as a whole.

  • cynthia lauren

    Re: McGee’s comments at the end: the ALS Foundation didn’t “finally find a way to transform vague awareness of the disease into something viral”, this was not planned or organized by the ALS Foundation. What makes something viral is not up the the organizers, it has a momentum of its own. ” The knock offs of this might be compared to oink ribbons, which came after the red ribbons for AIDS awareness. Sure, people will attempt to imitate this amazing effort, but it will be impossible to replicate.

    Other than that pretty large and fundamental misunderstanding, I think this is a great article.

  • Roey Thorpe

    I’ve worked in nonprofit organizations for almost 30 years, in a variety of leadership positions, and I really disagree with the opinions expressed in this article. This is because I’m not thinking of the Ice Bucket Challenge as the last contact with individuals, but the first. It’s a wonderful list-building activity, and each person, whether they’re giving $10 or $100 or more, has to give their contact information. This gives the ALS Association the ability to follow up with information and inspiration to all the people who have become engaged. Will there be attrition? Absolutely, but if they play their cards right they will wind up with many times the donors they started with, and the public will be aware of the disease and the need for research in a whole new way.

  • Marta

    I agree with McGee, awareness is paramount in any good campaign. The financial results speak for themselves. There are many good causes, how each cause differentiates itself is good competition.