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A Cool Idea or Beyond the Pale; is the ice bucket challenge a good thing for charities?

As I’d taken a bit of a hiatus from social media this summer (the equivalent of living under a rock in 2014), it meant that it was quite a while before I heard about the ALS Ice bucket challenge.

As I’d taken a bit of a hiatus from social media this summer (the equivalent of living under a rock in 2014), it meant that it was quite a while before I heard about the ALS Ice bucket challenge. It has been active in the USA since July, but has only really taken off in the UK in recent weeks, during which there have been numerous comparisons to the no make-up selfie.

The condition known as ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) in the USA is referred to as MND (Motor Neurone Disease) in the UK, but for simplicity I’m going to use only ALS here. As well as drenching themselves in icy water and nominating others to do the same, a donation to charity is expected from those that take part (and an even bigger donation from those that fail to take up a challenge from a friend). Estimates of how much has been raised vary, but ALS reported that between 29 July and 27 August they received $94.3 million (approx. £57 million) in donations.

As is often the case, as the popularity of this social media challenge has risen, so have its criticisms. People in regions experiencing drought like California have complained about the wastefulness of tipping gallons of buckets of water over people. Animal rights activists such as Pamela Anderson have protested against supporting the ALS Association in light of their use of animal testing. However, it was the knocking of the ice bucket challenge in an article in an online magazine that gave me pause for thought and I want to briefly consider a couple of the criticisms I’ve encountered, both in that article and more broadly.

Awareness raising is pointless for ALS

One point made is that a main benefit of viral campaigns of this nature is raising awareness for the disease or condition in question, but that raising awareness of ALS won’t help with prevention as the disease is so rare. Although the campaign has raised awareness of what it means to suffer from ALS, I feel like the focus of the campaign has been around fundraising and engaging with charity support more broadly. I also think that the argument that ALS is too rare a condition to benefit from awareness raising seems dubious.

The incidence rate for ALS (those that develop the condition each year) is two in 100,000, so it is a comparatively uncommon disease and one that is very individual and hard to diagnose. However, the prevalence of a condition has never been that strong a driver of how much we’re likely to support it as a cause. In the nfpSynergy report A Healthy Audience, analysis found that there is no straightforward relationship between either the prevalence of an illness or its mortality rate and charity income. There are a range of factors at work, including public awareness and understanding of the disease.

So, ALS has succeeded in bringing in more money by making more people aware of the condition, even if it doesn’t serve a public health message by making people aware of a disease they might be at risk of themselves.

The donations would be better used elsewhere

The ALS Association has been critiqued for being the beneficiary of a huge sum of money that other charities and causes could make far better use of. After all, as a research-driven organisation for a rare disease, the money will likely be sat on and spent in small increments on research projects that may not achieve their aim.

I think this line of argument feeds into the idea of charity donations as a fixed or finite sum that the sector has to scrap over. With the right incentive, people can choose to donate to a research-based organisation that delivers services, a charity that helps the homeless and one that funds medical research.

The ice bucket challenge not only has people supporting ALS charities, it has led to donations to other charities as well. Even those turned-off by the ice bucket challenge have been prompted to give to another cause instead. For example, WaterAid has reported an increase in donations from people citing being moved by seeing water wasted when there is a shortage of clean water access in some countries.

The first time I heard of the ice bucket challenge was when I asked a young person interviewing for a role with us which charity had impressed them recently and they talked about the ALS Association. I think the ice bucket challenge will undoubtedly have brought in some young people who haven’t given money to charity in the past, even if some were only attracted by the fun, silly nature of the social media craze.

nfpSynergy’s Charity Awareness Monitor data has shown little change in the public's favourite causes over time, so if an engaging, people-driven social media challenge can broaden engagement with charities and attract donors to new causes outside the usual favourites of cancer, animal welfare and children, that can only be a positive thing.

Amina Ali

Can the sector handle the ice bucket challenge, or is the money just a drop in the ocean? Leave us a comment below.


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