Do ice buckets really make a difference?

Fundraising / Tuesday, September 2nd, 2014

Unless you’ve been in a cave these past few weeks, chances are you’ve heard something about the ‘ice bucket challenge’. It goesa little something like this: your friends give you a 24 hour ultimatum = either you donate $100 to the ALS Association or you dump a bucket of cold water all over yourself. The campaign has gone absolutely viral – resulting in such celebrities as Justin Bieber dousing themselves in ice cold water. The results have been staggering:

-ALS has reported $94 million in donations since the challenge started on July 24th – compared to just $2.2 million in the same period last year (source).

-1.2 Million views on Facebook

-It has gotten tens of millions of people ’talking’ about ALS

Whoa! I don’t know about you, but if I could generate this kind of buzz at my own non-profit, I’d be very happy! Or would I? You see, there’s a darker side to all the flash and buzz that the ice bucket challenge is generating. On the one hand, I’d love having this level of funds and notoriety for the causes I support, but on the other hand, I sincerely question the lasting impact of this challenge. Here are 5 reasons why:

1.) Who are these ice-bucketers doing this for? I want volunteers and donors who are committed to causes greater than themselves. Is Justin Bieber truly committed to the eradication of ALS? Does he even care? More importantly – was Justin’s massive twitter following really inspired by the cause, or did they just want to see a shirtless Bieber dump water on himself?? It is a sad reality that most of these followers were probably more motivated by a fun social event with their friends, than actually doing something about ALS.

2.) What happens after this? I know the answer to this one – the ice bucket challenge becomes a flavor of the month, ALS gets a bump in awareness & funding, and then people move on to Bieber’s latest antic, virtually forgetting the challenge. And why does this happen? It happens because people are participating in the challenge for the wrong reasons. You don’t get involved with causes because your friends are involved – you get involved with causes because they have unique meaning to you. For example, I lead financial literacy programs at Habitat and support Iraqi refugees via Catholic Charities. I’m involved with financial literacy because I believe deeply that financial illiteracy is destroying families, enslaving college students in debt, and hindering our ability to give. I support Iraqi refugees because I know in my heart that building a strong relationship between Iraq and the United States begins at home. You see the difference?? My causes have meaning to me, so I will stay committed with my time, my money, my energy, and most importantly by genuinely sharing my cause with my friends.

3.) Will ice-bucketers stay the course? Will these people continue to combat ALS? No, they won’t – for all the reasons mentioned above. In fact, I’d wager that most of the people dumping ice on themselves couldn’t even tell you the specifics of the devastation that ALS wreaks on its victims – and they most definitely couldn’t explain to you how their donation will help end that misery. But they almostcertainly could tell you the lyrics to Justin Bieber’s latest song…

4.) Is the ice bucket challenge taking donations from other causes? $94 million in just a few months is a massive amount of money for a foundation. In fact, the ALS association itself doesn’t seem to know exactly what to do with this much money (source). Worse still – there is a legitimate concern that people are actually taking money away from causes they understand and donating to the ice bucket challenge (see this article). The end result? Meaningful non-profits lose valuable contributors simply because the ice bucket challenge has more pizzaz.

5.) What will the ALS Association do with all this money? Lou Gehrig’s disease is a horribly debilitating condition, and yet, after decades and tens of millions of dollars devoted to defeating it, we are nowhere nearer a cure than we were when Lou ‘Buster’ Gehrig died of the disease in 1941. That alone is certainly not a reason to avoid a donation, but in a world where charitable dollars are ever-scarcer, it is important that we donors carefully scrutinize the organizations that we give to. To throw Bieber fans under the bus again (sorry if any of y’all are fans out there :), how many of them do you think understand how the ALS Association combats this disease? How they spend their money? If their work aligns with that individual’s religious values? These are critical questions we must ask ourselves before donating! But I’m certain that very few ice-bucketers have asked themselves any of these.  Unfortunately, it is all to common that donors donate without a true understanding of what they are donating to – see this article for a discussion on that.

…and stay tuned on Friday, when I’ll tell you why I’d take 100 dedicated volunteers over 10,000 ice bucketers any day of the week.   

As for this week, I want to have a conversation about ice buckets and the difference they make. Please chime in by commenting below: How do you feel ice buckets can make a difference?