Monday, 22 August 2016

The delayed success of the ice bucket challenge

In August 2014 Twitter feeds, Facebook walls, and television screens were filled with celebrities and ordinary people dousing themselves with buckets of icy water. The viral trend had been started in America to raise money and awareness for Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS, also known as Lou Gherig’s Disease and Motor Neurone Disease). Millions of people participated in the challenge, which raised over $220 million in America and much more elsewhere.

However, the charity sector was not unanimous in celebrating the challenge as an example of modern fundraising and campaigning success. Many commented that the challenge was a fad, was failing to produce sustained interest in disease research, was making people feel good about themselves for relatively little effort (“slacktivism”, “clicktivism”), or was cannibalising donations, diverting gifts that would have been given anyway from more deserving causes to ALS.

There were other critiques: that this was a callous waste of water, that ALS was a disease of minor importance when several African countries were experiencing an Ebola epidemic of historic proportions, and simply that people were sharing the videos and taking the challenge without donating money or educating themselves. These can now be addressed in turn.

The boost in funding has now delivered intermediate results. The American ALS Association received 13 times more contributions than in a normal year and distributed them among six research projects. Work by Project MinE, which involved 80 researchers in 11 countries mapping the genomes of over 15,000 people, has identified a new gene which contributes to the disease, NEK1. This discovery is a step towards better treatments and a possible cure. Barbara Newhouse, the American ALS CEO, told the New Yorker “We’re seeing research that’s really moving the needle not just on the causes of the disease but also on treatments and therapies.”

This shows there are tangible results from people’s donations. The level of fundraising success was a story in itself, but the positive consequences arising from spending that money has public relations value for the whole charity sector two years later, confirming in donors’ minds the validity of contributing to charities that focus on research rather than services or direct giving. Project MinE received under one tenth of the funds raised, meaning other breakthroughs could arise from other scientific work.

Other criticisms are contradictory. The fact that there was an Ebola outbreak in 2014 simply means that more should have been done, and should be done, to encourage support for tropical disease charities. It is an invalid argument to suppose that just because it is sad one cause is being ignored, other causes too should be.

According to Giving USA, donations in the US rose almost 6% in 2014, which implies there was no cannibalism effect. At a rough estimate, about $12 was raised per video uploaded, suggesting that for every individual who made a video but failed to donate, there were many more who contributed. The English language version of Wikipedia saw views on its ALS page leap 18 times higher than normal, with similar increases in Spanish and German versions. It would be churlish to deny that the challenge raised awareness and understanding of the disease.

In awareness terms, the ice bucket challenge was also a success in starting the very conversation of which this blog is a part. Major newspapers and websites featured countless think pieces and debates on the relative impact of different charities, on what individuals’ strategies for giving ought to be, and how social media could or should be used by charities in the future. It is wrong to disparage the campaign for its primary focus on celebrity and fun — without this focus, there probably would have been no story at all, and no conversation. Moreover, the challenge engaged under 30s, the demographic that the third sector typically struggles to enthuse for volunteering or donation.

We can see reflections of the success in recent attempts to capture the enthusiasm of the 2014 craze. This year, mental health advocates in America and Britain are consciously trying to recreate the ice bucket challenge with the “22 push-up challenge” campaign, which has three admirable aims. First, to raise awareness that’s 22 military veterans take their own lives each day, second, to raise funding for mental health support, and third, to promote public fitness in a participatory, mutually supportive manner. It has already delivered stories in the Sun, Daily Telegraph, Daily Mirror and the BBC.


While it may not have been perfect, the ice bucket challenge shows the potential of social media for fundraising in an engaging way. It does not appear to have had the negative effects or attributes that critics feared, and indeed has begun to deliver results.

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