At this point, most of you are familiar with the Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) Ice Bucket Challenge. But for anybody who spent the summer off of Facebook, it is a social media movement to benefit the ALS Association (ALSA), a charity focused on raising awareness and research for ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease, a neurodegenerative disorder. Participants are given 24 hours to either pour a bucket of ice water on their heads or donate $100 to ALSA and in turn nominate three or four more people to participate. The challenge has been an unquestionable success, as ALSA has currently raised $94.3 million since the Ice Bucket Challenge kicked off, compared to only $2.7 million in the same time period last year. However, I worry that the great success of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge will fail to inspire further altruism and simply die off after a couple months as other hashtag activism movements have before it (think #Kony2012).
The tremendous success of the campaign demonstrates how effective coordinated charity movements can be, especially with the help of social media. Whether or not the motives of participants are that of pure altruism or they just want to participate in a cool trend, the movement has raised tons of money for a great cause and thus is something that should be celebrated.
The problem is that donating to charity should be a standard practice for citizens in wealthy countries like the United States and not merely something fun and trendy to do once every few years or when some horrible natural disaster devastates a population of people who can’t afford to help themselves. The tendency to jump on bandwagons and neglect to give regularly leads to disorganized and short-lived movements. We can do better.
It’s understandable why people feel more compelled to donate after viewing 24-hour news coverage of a natural disaster with identifiable victims. Americans donated over a billion dollars to the Red Cross and other disaster relief charities after a massive earthquake rocked Haiti in 2010. It revealed how compassionate Americans can be when forced to watch the level of despair in other parts of the world. However, hundreds of millions of dollars donated to help the people of Haiti went unused. Organizations were not equipped to spend the amount of money donated at the time. The same is true for many natural disasters that are given international media attention. There is a need for more transparency surrounding charities’ effectiveness in spending the money donated to them. The ultimate goal of charity is to help people, it is not enough to give without thought to how money is utilized.
It is also understandable that more people donate in response to a viral nomination trending on Facebook. Frankly, I’m not sure why most people did the Ice Bucket Challenge. Was it because they genuinely care about ALS and ALS research? Or because they wanted to have fun making a video for Facebook? Did people feel obliged to participate? The success of the trend is likely a combination of these factors, but when ALSA is raking in donations, it doesn’t really matter why people are giving, so long as they are giving. But it’s only a matter of time before the hype disperses.
Clearly, we have much to improve upon in terms of the way we give and our motivations for doing so. Despite its drawbacks, hopefully the Ice Bucket Challenge can teach us how easy it is to make a real difference. Now let’s take it a step further and make coordinated altruism not just a fad, but the norm. For those people interested in continuing the altruism, I recommend visiting thelifeyoucansave.org.