Opinion: Ice Bucket Challenge raises concerns

Opinion: Ice Bucket Challenge raises concerns

If you’ve been on Facebook in the last three months, you’ve heard of the Ice Bucket Challenge, a viral fundraising campaign for the ALS Association. The Ice Bucket Challenge deserves praise for raising a lot of money for, and uniting interest around, a great cause. People participating in the Challenge have raised $100 million for ALS research since July, an incredible amount for any nonprofit. On an average day of the challenge, the ALS Association raised approximately $2 million, the equivalent of their annual earnings last year.

Nonprofits struggle to persuade people to make charitable donations during the best of economic times. But with the Ice Bucket Challenge, 184,812 new donors contributed to the ALS Association, and 17 million Ice Bucket Challenge videos have been posted on Facebook — that’s amazing! Even North Korea, one of the poorest and most politically oppressed countries in the world, recently jumped on the Ice Bucket bandwagon. The only big question left is which holdout is next: Vladimir Putin or the Pope?

While it’s great that the campaign was so successful, it’s time to take the next step. Nonprofits like the ALS Association need to move from social campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge to long-term strategies that raise more in-depth awareness and commitment about issues than dumping a bucket of ice on your head can.

The Ice Bucket Challenge did not do enough to inform the general public about ALS. People usually focused more on the Ice Bucket Challenge’s central gimmick and the celebrities involved than the cause itself. For at least some participants, that meant that the challenge was more about being seen as trendy than about being genuinely charitable. Magazine author Arielle Pardes put it well when she said, “there are a lot of things wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge, but most the annoying is that it’s basically narcissism masked as altruism.”

While more people have technically heard of ALS than before the challenge, almost none of the challenge videos actually discuss what ALS is, what the ALS Association does, or how people can continue advocating on behalf of ALS research.

Building real awareness involves more than just saying that a problem exists. It means educating people on what that problem is, why their participation in ending the problem matters, and, most importantly, showing people how they can get involved with the cause in a more consistent, meaningful manner than one-time donation. That kind of education doesn’t happen when campaigns don’t move beyond the gimmicks and celebrities to meatier content, such as personal invitations to volunteer for and consistently donate to the ALS Association, as well as in-depth informational videos explaining the ALS research process.

The biggest problem with the Ice Bucket Challenge is that it pushed towards a culture shift towards generosity, but did not push far enough. American pop culture, which glorifies individualism, buying stuff and Kim Kardashian, could use more campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge to remind people of the importance of giving. That said, campaigns like the Ice Bucket Challenge risk sending the cultural message that you should participate in charity, but only when it’s trendy.

Participants in the Ice Bucket Challenge deserve praise for donating, but so much more can be done. Each year, Americans manage to spend $1.2 trillion on luxury items such as gambling, booze, video games, candy and yachts. It is disheartening to think that temporary bouts of do-gooding could just be a way of making people feel good about themselves for a short time, before returning to spend more of their time, energy, and money on material and personal self satisfaction.

In the future, non-profits should seek ways to engage individuals beyond temporary hash tag activism. Altruism must be more than a fad, a game, or something one pursues in order to receive their personal five minutes of fame. Social campaigns such as Livestrong, Kony 2012, #Haiti, and, of course, the Ice Bucket Challenge, may grab attention and even some donations, but rarely result in creating lasting social change.

People should be even frustrated that the campaigns they participate in come and go before the campaign finishes the work it started. Following the previously mentioned campaigns, a cure for cancer remains to be found, Joseph Kony remains at large, and 150,000 Haitians remain in plywood shelters long after Hurricane Sandy. People who are suffering from terrible diseases or living in impoverished, oppressive conditions deserve more consistent attention than they receive once the average social campaign ends.

If the ALS Association can find a cure to ALS before funds dry up, the Ice Bucket Challenge will have been a success. Unfortunately, past campaign history suggests that in a couple years people will have generally forgotten all about the ALS cause without a cure yet being found.

The Ice Bucket Challenge did a lot of good. Let’s just hope that nonprofits can inspire people to change their lifestyle, not just their Facebook profile.