Nobody should be surprised by the Ice Bucket Challenge.
Duke students buy random food and apparel for philanthropy events all the time, sometimes without knowing which organization they are supporting. Even more often they buy these things without knowing how much these organizations spend, how much income they generate already and what they spend that income on.
Yet these small-scale, unresearched donations don’t seem to spark that much criticism. It’s taken the ubiquity of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to generate article after article asserting that for challenge participants, the cause has become a means of generating Facebook likes, that the stunt shadows the real purpose. For the most part our generation is inclined to donate when there is social pressure to do so, without doing research into where that donation might be best received. And now the Ice Bucket Challenge, with its millions of unique videos, has proved that in a very quantifiable, visual way.
Still, I would like to offer a defense of the Ice Bucket Challenge. This is not a defense of people who donate or participate without understanding. It certainly isn’t a defense of charity insomuch as it fuels egotism. It is a defense of the challenge itself.
When you consider any charity, not everyone who donates has the same intentions. Not everyone is as motivated to stamp out ALS as those who have lost loved ones or themselves suffer from the disease. Not everyone has devoted their working life to the cause the way ALS researchers have. Most people probably put more thought into how they look on camera than what a cure to ALS might actually mean.
But charity is fundamentally about outcomes, not intentions. To consider it a single action, the donation, is to cheapen the true effect stemming from what that money enables. Focusing on the donor reflects the same egotism that critics isolate as a major issue with the challenge. In reality, a fundraising campaign is about the recipient. If the organization benefiting from the bucket challenge was a bit questionable or not that effective, then by all means criticism is in order. But the ALS Association is continually highly rated by independent sources like Charity Navigator, and a large majority of their expenditures—79 percent—are in public and professional education, research and patient and community services. The conversation needs to be shifted.
Furthermore, the idea of a ‘bucket challenge’ has spun-off to promote other powerful causes as well. Manju Latha Kalanidhi started a ‘rice bucket challenge’ in India by posting a picture of herself handing a bag of rice to a neighbor in Hyderabad. In two days, an estimated 8,500 pounds of rice were donated, snapped and shared and Kalanidhi received two international awards for ‘doing something small, yet significant, to make a difference in the world,.’
By virtue of existing in cyberspace, by virtue of being posted and posed, a cause does not lose its value. Hunger is a fairly significant problem in India and if social media and the current obsession with sharing self-sacrifice can diminish that, I refuse to believe that’s a bad thing.
It’s incredibly tempting to write off the Ice Bucket Challenge, and it’s easy to focus on the superficiality of Facebook shares and likes. But at the end of the day, the ALS Association has received $100 million in donations in the past month. It shouldn’t matter if you think an Internet fad is a stupid reason to donate—it shouldn’t matter if you roll your eyes every time you see another video.
People should chafe at the idea of superficiality fueling a major charitable campaign. But we’re lucky that today, social media and hashtag activism are serving to fund real research and intelligent, motivated people. There might be a problem with the way in which donors view charity, but I challenge anybody to take real issue with the ALS Association’s capitalization on the fad.
Lydia Thurman is a Trinity senior. This is her first column of the semester.