I’ll admit: I rolled my eyes when the barrage of videos hit my Facebook feed. It seemed like so-called ‘slacktivism’ at its finest: something to be ‘liked’ and ‘shared’ and forgotten almost instantly. But as the movement flooded social media — Facebook has recorded over 1.2 million separate videos — people began to take notice.
The Ice Bucket Challenge, which started as any other viral stunt and somehow became a fundraising powerhouse for ALS, could be dismissed, like one commenter said, as “the Harlem Shake of this summer.”
But unlike other flash-in-the-pan movements, the Ice Bucket Challenge is doing something. Since June, the New York Times reports, the ALS Association has seen an astronomical surge of donations totaling over $100 million — quadrupling their annual operating budget in just two months. In the same time, Wikipedia reported a spike of 400,000 new searches for “Amyotriphic lateral sclerosis.”
Apparently people are doing more than scrolling. And that is the genius of the Ice Bucket Challenge: the way that it taps into a new realm of viral altruism. Say what you want about the quality of the videos — the marketing strategy is effective.
People have come down hard against the challenge. It can be self-congratulatory, critics say, its participants more interested in joining a movement than raising awareness. Who hasn’t seen someone call the disease ASL, or neglect even to mention it? And as the declining numbers of videos already shows, this spike in giving is unsustainable.
But I don’t think these criticisms detract from the intent of the movement. In the carefully-curated, self-focused world of social media, I think the Ice Bucket Challenge is refreshing (figuratively and literally). Friends of mine have used the platform to raise awareness about ALS or other causes close to their heart. This brief philanthropic moment in the spotlight isn’t one that comes around often.
As a culture, I think we have an unhealthy relationship with giving. We don’t talk about it. For every university hall named after an illustrious family, there are a thousand donations sent in sealed envelopes, taking to heart Jesus’ command to “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing.”
I’m not saying that discretion in giving is wrong, but I do think over-conscientiousness puts us out of touch with both the giving and the needs of our community. Who of us knows what charities our friends support, or if they donate to any at all?
I think of Paul’s letters to the Corinthians in which giving was a natural part of a broader conversation about caring for each other. Paul commends the giving habits of one church and openly seeks donations for another congregation.
This spike in ALS donations may be a one-time thing, but I don’t buy the criticisms that the challenge is stealing from other worthy causes. Giving engenders giving. Charity is not a zero-sum game.
So is the Ice Bucket Challenge a good model? Is this the giving of the future? As someone involved in nonprofits, I hope that people are motivated to donate by the results that can be achieved and not by flashy stunts. I hope that giving is a long-term commitment, not a one-time challenge.
But I still think this is a step in the right direction.
In Philippians 1:15 and 18 Paul writes again, “It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill…. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.”
In the same way, some are dumping ice water over their heads for the right reasons and some for pride or vanity or boredom. But what does it matter? Money and awareness are being raised. Charitable donations have captured the media’s frenetic attention and held it for one brief second.
We should be discerning with our gifts, but we should also be generous. Why not challenge each other to learn about a condition our neighbors live with daily? Why not call on each other to give?
There may be more effective ways to give but at least this starts the conversation.