3 min read

Unless you’ve been entirely on vacation, you’ve heard about the “ice bucket challenge,” which has raised $88.5 million in the last two months for the ALS Association, dwarfing the $2.6 million received in the same period in 2013. The ALS Association was nimble enough to strike while the iron was hot as the ice bucket challenge—which was appearing here and there over the last few months in connection with various charities—became hot stuff on social media.

According to some, this spectacular windfall is “rewriting [the] charity model” with a new, social-media savvy way of fundraising.

Others aren’t so impressed. Some deride being doused with ice water to support a cause as mere “slacktivism” because most new donors will fall away after the ice bucket fad melts away, and some note the challenges of spending this windfall wisely.

Others go further and complain the ice bucket challenge isn’t merely a passing fad unlikely to make a lasting impact in the fight against ALS but that it’s casting a chill over the charitable sector. Such critics argue that the ALS Association is soaking up a disproportionate share of charitable dollars—disproportionate because ALS is a rare disease and dollars given to fight ALS might have been given to charities that fight more common diseases (or, presumably, to other, even more worthy causes). 

It’s true that a few charities will find themselves out in the cold as people’s charitable budgets will have been drained by donations to the ALS Association. Feel for the poor fundraiser whose own clever marketing campaign won’t hit its targets because of the ice bucket challenge.

But, some perspective, please. The ice bucket challenge is neither as revolutionary as some claim or as disruptive to the charitable sector as others claim.

First, this isn’t the first time a gimmick has captured the public’s imagination and briefly dominated the charitable landscape. The March of Dimes began in 1938 with a campaign to collect dimes for polio research and treatment. The dimes were to be sent directly to President Roosevelt at the White House, adding a presidential flair to the campaign. In the words of the White House mail room manager, here’s what happened:

We had been handling about 5,000 letters a day at that time. We got 30,000 on the day the March of Dimes began. We got 50,000 the next day. We got 150,000 the third day. We kept on getting incredible numbers, and the Government of the United States darned near stopped functioning because we couldn’t clear away enough dimes.

The March of Dimes truly did rewrite the charitable model by showing, for the first time, that large sums could be raised from many small donors. Social media has indeed changed the charitable landscape but it’s hardly replaced fundraising by mail or direct, personal solicitation. The ice bucket challenge, as impressive as the sums raised are, won’t revolutionize fundraising.

Indeed, the millions given to the ALS Association are going to cut into the budgets of some other charities—but only until the ice bucket challenge peters out. However, the $88.5 million raised in the last two months is less than 3 one-hundredths of a percent of the $335 billion given to charity by Americans in 2013, a tiny sliver of overall charitable spending and not enough to make a difference to most charities.

And, yes, pouring icy water over your head (especially in lieu of making a donation) does seem like slacktivism—but some people got the idea that the numbing effect of the icy water is something akin to the awful numbing that accompanies ALS. And who is to say that charitable giving is disproportionate to a need, or so wise as to know which charitable cause is truly the most worthy?

That the ice bucket challenge is terrific or that it’s terrible—neither claim cuts no ice with me.


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