What became of the Ice Bucket Challenge?

One of the things Sarita and I particularly like about our focused charitable investing: we believe our giving is far more strategic than it would be otherwise.

My friend Steve Hawthorne used to decry what he called the “Compassion Spasm” approach to charitable fundraising. Non-profit organizations appeal to potential donors’ emotions as much as possible; people experience a short, spasmodic emotional response to the appeal; they then give a few dollars and feel happy; then they forget the cause.

How can they forget the cause? Because, frankly, they never really cared about the cause. It was the appeal that mattered . . . or the context in which the appeal was made.

Maybe it was the poignant feelings associated with the appeal itself that somehow moved them to write the check or pull out the credit card.

Maybe it was the overwhelming sense that they couldn’t get rid of the person on the phone or at the door unless they gave.

Maybe it was a sense of overwhelming peer pressure as I mentioned in my last post.

Whatever the reason, with the Compassion Spasm approach to fundraising, a lot of people give . . . and then they move on.

There are numerous problems with this kind of approach to fundraising and charitable giving.

For one, after someone has become accustomed to the cycle, they can get to the point where they fall into a Compassion Fatigue mode–kind of like Type 2 Diabetics with blood sugar and insulin: their organs start shutting down, they stop responding. Or, worse, they begin to respond negatively, cynically, antagonistically.

Then there are the problems associated with such uneven giving levels, such transient, ephemeral commitment, that agencies can hardly plan how to work effectively over the long-term to fulfill their stated missions–since, for all but emergency, “humanitarian crisis” situations, the solutions require long-term commitment, long-term focus.

We’re talking about the difference between teaching people to fish instead of merely handing them fish that we caught for them. The one helps recipients of our largesse to emerge from poverty; the other leaves them dependent on us to escape–and wholly unable to remain out of poverty once we’ve offered them a “hand up.”

The ALS Association, which sponsored the Ice Bucket Challenge, “probably the single largest episode of giving outside of a disaster or emergency,” has come face-to-face with the problems of Compassion-Spasm fundraising.

In 2015, an article in CNN noted,

[In 2014,] we saw ice water splash a man on the rim of a glacier, a motorcyclist doing a wheelie and a pilot flying upside down. The ALS Association is hoping the social media stunts lead to more splashing and more donations again this summer.

“Let’s keep it up this August and every August until there’s a cure,” proclaims a new promo on its website.

That’s because while $115 million may sound like a lot of money, it may in fact not be.

“By some estimates it takes about a billion dollars to make a new therapy,” said Dr. Steven Finkbeiner of the Neurocollaborative.

So how did the promo work out? Did the ALS Association keep up its momentum?


According to Patrick deHahn in Associations Now, last summer’s event raised–drum roll, please!–“$1 million”!

Now, while $1 million was “a jump compared with prior summers,” can we call the next phrase what it is: an understatement? That $1 million total was “significantly less” than 2014’s.

Uh, yes. I’d say.

Let’s capture the significance of what Mr. deHahn has said here. 2014’s fund raising total could have offered hope that the Association might raise funds to pay for a new therapy in about 10 years. (Pretty phenomenal!) But now those who suffer from ALS know that they have maybe another thousand years or so ($1 million is 1/1000th of $1 billion).

So, the lasting good the Ice Bucket Challenge created? The good that your–or your friends’–participation generated?

If those who went to extreme lengths to make YouTube videos–the man on the glacier, the motorcyclist, the pilot . . . or even more everyday people who “simply” took the time to set up a good bucket dump: I wonder how things might be different today had all of these people put their efforts into something nearer and dearer to their hearts, something that they would continue to work for not just for the hours it took to make their videos, but for years?

On the common AIDA marketing scale, the ALS Association, apparently, moved very few people beyond momentary Attention (noticing and responding momentarily to the social media excitement), to true Interest in the cause behind the media stunts, to Desire to do something really significant, and, finally, long-term Action in behalf of the cause. After all, it is only that long-term commitment to Action that will make a measurable difference to those who suffer from ALS.

It’s the same question in almost all charitable endeavors, isn’t it? Do our actions actually do anything for the proclaimed and intended targets of our largesse? Or do they mostly give us good feelings? Do we do it for the high? Or, truly, to achieve a long-term goal?

Phil Buchanan, president of the Center for Effective Philanthropy, said, “There are all kinds of . . . bizarre traditions in societies, and [the Ice Bucket Challenge] strikes me as, potentially, a more useful one than many others if it can raise that kind of money.”

And yet. . . . He expressed a concern: that donors will pay attention only to diseases with the cleverest social media marketing campaigns.

Is that what you want to be known for? As the person who participated willy-nilly in whatever the culture found titillating for the moment? To what will you commit on a long-term basis . . . for strategic results?

By focusing, Sarita and I have been able to ensure–to a far greater degree than we could in any other way–that our actions actually do “make a difference.”

More on how we’ve been able to do that . . . next time.

Thanks for reading!