As of Aug. 29, 2014, the ALS Association proudly reported having received $100.9 million from over three million donors within a month, thanks to this summer’s viral Ice Bucket Challenge. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a disease in which the progressive degeneration of motor neurons in the brain and spinal cord results in muscle weakness and atrophy. This often leads to total paralysis and death within two to five years. In the campaign to find a cure, many non-profits, such as Project A.L.S., have adopted the Ice Bucket Challenge, posting it onto their front pages and turning it into a trending social media phenomenon that gathers more supporters each day. However, despite having had an impressive run with no signs of slowing down any time soon, the Ice Bucket Challenge has its critics — and rightfully so.
Even though CNN.com commends the challenge as a manifestation of the “power of the peer-to-peer economy, driven by young people,” the challenge ultimately reinforces the problems in how our generation approaches activism and giving to donor-dependent organizations. Since the ALS Association neither constructed nor actively enlivened the Ice Bucket Challenge, we’re the ones who should accept the responsibility for the long-term flaws of this activist campaign.For one, while the ALS Association itself would most likely appreciate a donation of any amount, the ice bucket challenge seems to demand the donation of $100, turning away young people such as college students who originally might have been interested in contributing to the cause. Considering that young adults are a huge demographic of the challenge, it certainly doesn’t help that the viral trend started and peaked in the summer, right before students are having to deal with expenses such as tuition, room and board, meal plans and textbooks.
Facebook users who resort to the free ice-dumping video alternative still reap the social rewards of ‘likes’ and comments, but the ALS Association has lost a potential donation. For those who choose this alternative, the Ice Bucket Challenge asks very little from its participants. One donor cycle merely involves the nominator providing a 1-2 sentence description about ALS, a link to the ALS Association’s webpage, a nomination of three other individuals and the light-hearted threat of 24 hours for challenge completion on the social media setting of his or her choice. There is almost too much simplicity in the sequence from being nominated on social media to actually submitting your donation. Because of the “I dare you” nature of the challenge, nominees will be less concerned with verifying the efficiency of the charity organization, researching the disease itself or learning about more ways to actively contribute to the cause beyond a single installment of $100. While researching might end up driving away people who are unsatisfied with an organization’s efficiency, it ultimately creates informed donors who are more likely to stay committed to the cause.
This is another problem with the Ice Bucket Challenge: Its thinly veiled connection to ALS is that it doesn’t involve an aggressive follow-through. Charities usually do this by asking first-time donors if they want to join a newsletter or apply for a membership. Since the Ice Bucket Challenge doesn’t even make an effort to maintain donors’ interest after it’s completed, the donor retention time is basically the 24 hours — a single cycle.
Possibly the worst of the Ice Bucket Challenge’s shortcomings is that its results are not reproducible. It probably won’t be renewed again next year as “Ice Bucket Challenge Part 2”. If someone creates a spin-off of it, the new version probably won’t be nearly as successful as the original Ice Bucket Challenge. So even if other charity organizations manage to come up with new challenge ideas, they’ll have to deal with the reality that people aren’t likely to participate in consecutive challenges within a certain time period. As Tom Murphy says in his article, “Why I’m not doing the #icebucketchallenge or donating for ALS”, the new “reality of fundraising” is the “hype cycle” — how long a campaign can succeed before it’s replaced by a new viral trend and permanently goes “off the radar”.
In spite of its good intentions, the Ice Bucket Challenge is ultimately a nod to the short attention span of the social network generation. It trains organizations to figure out ways to cater toward lower levels of commitment and the public’s love affair with slacktivism. The truth is that even if charities manage to continue with the surge campaign philosophy, only so many organizations will be able to benefit from this practice before the public hits a plateau of apathy. It’s only a matter of time before someone says, “Thanks for the nomination, but there’s no one left to nominate” and frankly, we should be able to do better than that.
Isabella Gomes is an ecology and evolutionary biology major from Irvine, California. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.