Ice Bucket Challenge: Donor-Focused Charity and the Donation Vacuum

I first began to notice videos for the ALS "Ice Bucket Challenge" a little over a week ago, and I was a bit perplexed right away. My first consideration: "does accepting this challenge imply that you are also donating money, or that you are simply dumping a bucket of water on your head?"

I later learned that dumping the water on your head indicated that you opted not to donate money. Despite this seemingly obvious problem with the challenge, the campaign has succeeded in raising millions of dollars (but I'm still very curious to know how many people have cut a check to ALS in addition to taking the challenge).

In his piece, This week, let's dump a few ice buckets to wipe out malaria too, William MacAskill points out, "It [the Ice Bucket Challenge] does not suggest that people are thinking carefully about their donation decisions. It suggests that we're rewarding and incentivizing good marketing rather than good work."

Recently, I witnessed a few people "prepare" for the own Ice Bucket Challenge. I could feel the excitement radiating off of them, and it occurred to me that they were considering, as they must, how they would then share their challenge on social media. This was one of the most donor-centric manifestations of charity that I've witnessed personally.

Let me be clear: I am glad that social media has helped to raise millions of dollars for ALS -- I don't mean to downplay that achievement and I certainly don't mean to downplay the harsh reality faced by those inflicted with ALS. I am also conscious of the fact that social media has completely changed the way that we share information. This in mind, I suppose the following excerpt from the New Testament may need modern revisions:

"So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others." - Matthew, 6:2

Ultimately, of course it is better to have countless people donating to a cause, or even just drawing attention to it, even if it seems a little donor-focused. In his article, MacAskill goes on to say, "Donor-focused philanthropy neglects to even mention the most important aspect of giving: the impact that your donation has. This isn't to say that we should be dour and solemn, giving merely out of a sense of duty."

My primary concern with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is that donating participants, of which there are clearly very many, will write off their obligation to donate to another charity this year. It is basic psychology to "check off boxes," and this abundance of ALS donations -- while wonderful on one hand -- could create a significant "vacuum" effect for charitable donations this year.

I hope that the ALS challenge serves as a reminder to all of us that we can collectively have a huge impact on important causes. I merely suggest that we push ourselves to engage with a cause and vision that we personally believe in. If we take the time to consider the causes that we care most about, we're more likely to find other ways to contribute -- and will likely feel a deeper sense of personal responsibility to continue donating. Take the time to reflect on your favorite cause or charity, and if you want to draw others to your cause, write about it, share articles about the topic, or encourage others to donate with you.

Sidenote: if I get challenged to the Ice Bucket Challenge, I'll be writing a check to ACLU of Missouri instead of ALS, because in the midst of countless Ice Bucket challenge videos, there is a critical piece of civil rights history unfolding in Ferguson, MO that everyone should be paying attention to.

Other tools:
  • Charity Navigator: helps people get the most charity for their dollar, supporting educated donations and investments based on the use of your funds and other factors.
  • The Foundation Center has everything you could ever want to know about grant making foundations and nonprofits.

A few organizations I'm personally passionate about: