The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been mind-blogglingly successful, raising tens of millions of dollars and becoming a bona fide internet phenomenon. But it has also garnered considerable criticism. So, are the critics right? Is the Ice Bucket Challenge really an example of a terrible approach to philanthropy?
I took the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge last week, after being challenged by a Facebook friend. As part of it, I also happily donated money to the cause. ALS (the neurodegenerative disease Amyotrophic Lateral Schlerosis) is a good cause, and I had fun doing my bit. I encouraged (and encourage) others to take part.
But many people have found the Challenge off-putting, and the criticisms are worth considering.
So OK, to begin with: yes, an internet meme is a pretty silly way to decide which charities to support. If the only thing that inspires you to support a good cause is the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio dumped water on his head, you might want to rethink your priorities.
Critics have in particular focused on the fact that it’s far from clear that ALS, currently enjoying the limelight, is the world’s most important charitable cause. After all, the number of people suffering from ALS pales in comparison to the number of people who die from cancer or heart disease. True, but that’s not a reason not to donate to it. There is no “most worthy” cause. Charities vary along many dimensions, and there’s nothing wrongheaded about donating — even collectively donating lavishly — to help cure a disease that afflicts relatively few in a relatively tragic way.
Other critics have lamented more specifically the fact that the ALS Challenge is—gasp!—taking money away from other charities. And there is some evidence that that’s true. Money is finite, and presumably many people will donate less to other charities if they have donated to ALS. But this applies to any charity’s fundraising efforts. If the Canadian Cancer Society or the Heart and Stroke Foundation has an especially successful fundraising year, it likely means some other charity (or perhaps a great many small charities) will have had comparatively miserable ones. There’s no special reason to single out the Ice Bucket Challenge in this regard. As for me, like most people I know, I dug out an additional $100 out of my pocket—$100 I was liable to spend on dinner out, or on iTunes—and donated it to ALS Canada. I made a donation in addition to the other causes I regularly donate to.
And consider this: Most of the criticisms launched against the Ice Bucket Challenge are ones that apply to your local 10k Fun Run in support of cancer research, too. Or the dance-a-thon to raise money to feed the hungry. Focused on me and my accomplishments, rather than on the charity? Check! Pressuring your friends into donating or sponsoring, independent of their own priorities? Check! Environmentally wasteful? Check! A non-thoughtful way to select a charity? Check!
One of the best things to come out of the Ice Bucket Challenge has been the vibrant discussion and the range of creative responses it has engendered. A friend of mine dumped water on her head (thus contributing to keeping the meme going) but donated to her own favourite charity, and in her video encouraged others to do exactly the same thing. Charlie Sheen dumped $10,000 in cash on his head, symbolizing the amount he was pledging to donate to the ALS Foundation. Matt Damon (co-founder of Water.org) dumped icy toilet water on his head, to draw attention not just to the stunt but to his own favourite cause, namely the provision of clean water.
In the end, the creativity and even the critical comments are good. It’s good for people to be talking about charity, and which charities to give to, and how to do it. Yes, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has faced considerable criticism. And that’s a good thing.