No, it’s not the great justification that slacktivists so desperately want it to be, but it’s being treated that way.
(Before you hate me, you’ve got to read this one through to the end.)
You pretty much can’t step off your virtual front porch without wading through a myriad of “Ice Bucket Challenge” videos these days, and it shows no signs of slowing down. Anyone and everyone with a video camera and an internet connection is hopping on board the damp parade of charity awareness, grabbing a drywall bucket, a bag of ice, and going to town.
For those of you somehow unfamiliar with the Ice Bucket Challenge, it’s a movement started by Peter Frates, a man living with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease), and his friend, the late Corey Griffin earlier this summer to raise funds and awareness for ALS research by filming yourself getting a bucket of ice-water on your head and then challenging your friends to do the same within 24 hours or donate a sum of money to ALSA (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association.)
And not just us filthy commoners; FAMOUS people are doing it! A LOT of famous people. To name a few:
Conan O’Brian has done it.
Jimmy Fallon has done it.
Robert Downey Jr. has done it.
Martha Freaking Stewart has done it.
THE ENTIRE BLUE ANGELS FLYING TEAM has done it.
And guess what? The viral publicity stunt looks like it’s actually working, too, having increased donations to ALSA from last year by a crazy huge amount. We’re talking like… 1000%.
I’m still not going to do it, nor am I going to donate to ALSA. Here’s why:
On a broader, social level, I think this entire viral campaign is just another form of slacktivism in social media circles where quirky self-promotion in the name of “awareness” is placed far above actual involvement, effort, and contribution to the given charity. This is cultivating the unhealthy notion that raising “awareness” with a twitter hashtag and then calling it a day is not only admirable but preferable to actually taking action. The only reason I can’t accuse this movement of being “armchair activism” is because it’s usually done outside. A more subtle side-effect is that this campaign has a good chance of ultimately becoming harmful to other charities this year.
On a more personal level, I tend to devote most of my time, money, and effort to charities that I either have a strong personal connection with or charities whose messages, methods, and results I agree with and admire. The simple fact of the matter is that I don’t really have any sort of personal connection/experience with ALS or ALS research, and without that, I would need to be sold on the charity itself. Unfortunately, I strongly disagree with some of ALSA’s research methods, and I do not wish to donate to a foundation which endorses practices I fundamentally disagree with. The fact that not donating for these personal reasons alone has made me a bad person in the eyes of some of my Ice Bucket Challenge friends is not only ridiculous but morally reprehensible. There are perfectly valid reasons to refuse to donate to an organization, and choosing one over another should not have any effect on perception in the bizarre “Social Awareness Olympics” that seem to be taking place online.
If you haven’t already quit reading in a righteous rage, then let me explain, starting with the weird relationship between slacktivism and “awareness.”
Awareness is not a commodity!
One of my biggest pet peeves, this has been among my mantras for years, and I will probably still be shouting it as they lower me into my grave. My biggest critique of social media “awareness” campaigns has been and always will be “Good job. We are now aware. What next?” But that’s where it stops.
“I did it! I hitched my Twitter handle to this viral sensation and I get to feel good about all the good I’m doing!”
But… what else?
The problem is that, too often, there ISN’T anything else. To give credit where credit is due, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge deserves mad props for at least OFFERING OPTIONS that involve legitimate avenues of making a difference. That’s probably why they’ve been successful; their campaign didn’t stop at “Change your profile pic to Lou Gehrig for a month for awareness, lulz.”
Awareness does have its place and usefulness, as the quote from Gary Haugen and the “END IT” movement (and offshoot from the International Justice Mission, a charity that is ALWAYS worth your time) so pithily put it:
“Nothing happens just because we are aware of modern-day slavery. But nothing will ever happen until we are.”
However, stopping with JUST “awareness” of something all by itself is totally useless.
The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a very clever gimmick, but at the end of the day, that’s all it is; a gimmick. It’s a gimmick that proposes a continuation of the same elevation of “awarness,” through convenient, albeit fun, self-promotion at the cost of ACTUALLY helping.
“But… you JUST said what a wild success this campaign was! You torpedoed your own argument before you even started!”
Yes, I know. I’ve seen this NY Times article, and others like it, used with all the delicate tact of bludgeon by at least half a dozen people on my Facebook feed as the smoking gun evidence that finally justifies slacktivism and exonerates years of vapid hashtags.
Except not really, because the problem at large is a systemic one involving the mentality of the public at large. No one is denying that the campaign has generated a ridiculous amount of money for ALSA this quarter. But due to natural market fatigue, it’s not going to last… and the odds are very good that this massive influx of cash will not occur again for a long time. What WILL remain is the personal attitude encouraged by the Challenge.
To borrow the title of a Vice.com article by Ariel Pardes, “Dumping a bucket of ice on your head does not make you a philanthropist.”
It doesn’t. Being a philanthropist makes you a philanthropist. You have to actually give money. The article makes some very good points regarding the problem-mentality surrounding campaigns like these, where people are more likely to do something post-worthy than donate money.
Another article in Time magazine talks about the problem of reconciling a campaign than has raised a ton of money with the fact that it paints dumping ice-water on yourself as preferable to donating.
Yes, it HAS generated a ton of money, and no one is denying the amount of good this campaign can do… but most of that money is not coming from everyday challenge takers. VERY few of the people soaking themselves are still donating money. An alternate form of the challenge is presented as donated a small sum and get soaked, or avoid the showering and donate a large.
I have seen exactly TWO Challenge videos, out of the huge number posted by friends, that advocate this.
Most of the people doing the challenge are not donating money. Most of it is coming from those aforementioned A-list celebrities who are doing both the challenge AND donating gobs of money.
Or, in the case of Charlie Sheen, doing the Challenge WITH gobs of money.
Public figures like Sheen, Bill Gates, and even President Bush are all writing big checks in addition to doing the challenge, while others, like President Obama are simply donating right off the bat.
Of course, even a large number of celebrities are just dumping water on themselves and challenging others without donating… and some without even mentioning ALS at ALL.
And you know who is calling them out on it?
Freaking Steve-O from Jackass.
The Challenge had potential, but a lot of people, including many of our celebrity darlings, are doing just for the heck of it, and it’s a shame that Steve-O of all people has to be the one calling people out for it.
“Ok, so some people are doing it for the wrong reasons, but how can this possibly hurt other charities?”
Two words: Market Cannibalization.
Several articles and economists have raised questions about whether or not the huge amount of money raised is going to eat away at the funding of other charities and research organizations, and so far… all signs point to “yes.”
Basically, it means that it is widely accepted that the amount of money people are willing to donate each year is a limited pool, and one organization vastly dwarfing the others will see the others income suffer. What’s worse, some are postulating that simply doing the challenge in lieu of donating triggers the same sense of “Moral Licensing” that giving money does, meaning that the challenge could actually be shrinking the overall payload.
Neither the writers of Quartz, nor I, are condemning ALSA for generating funds. It’s a contest that’s run every year between non-profits to see who can seize the greatest windfall, and it has been this way for some time. It’s just how charity works; a non-profit business is still a business… and that’s ok.
However, with the veracity and ferocity of “viral campaigns,” the ones that actually work, the pendulum swing of non-profit income disparity only shows signs of growing wider and wider each year. “Moral Licensing,” which is basically the inner sense of “I’ve done my good deed for the year by doing X” is becoming a big problem and will only get bigger with time.
, the writer of that Quartz article sums up the problem well:
“We should not reward people for minor acts of altruism, when they could have done so much more, because doing so creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change.”
However, he also presents a solution:
Stop giving money out of obligation to solicited charity and pick a non-profit that drives you to commit to long lasting behavioral change.
The solution is sweet, and simple. Find a non-profit that you can not only support regularly, but get involved with to work towards a common goal. It removes the sense of “Moral Licensing” and encourages contributions to be more meaningful, more regular, and more often. Don’t make your non-profit contribution a source of “likes” and “re-tweets.” Make it part of your identity.
I’m not donating to ALSA because ALSA is not part of my identity… and I don’t wish to make it part.
ANY kind of Motor Neuron Disease is a terrible, terrible thing, and I pray that my loved ones never suffer from it. However, as it has not been any kind of prominent fixture in my life, it does not encourage any kind of behavioral change. I would be donating just out of guilt and social obligation.
More importantly, I cannot donate to ALSA on moral grounds. Currently, wide swathes of ALS research is done with embryonic stem cells, and ALSA does extensive work with them. As anyone familiar with me knows, I am extremely pro-life, and that forms one of the fairly immovable cornerstones of my worldview. I find the method of growing and harvesting embryos for stem cells to violate those beliefs.
With this in mind, I cannot, in good conscience, contribute to an organization I have no vested interest in, that actively pushes practices I cannot reconcile.
This is not a demand that anyone pro-life stop donating. Donating (not dumping water) to ALS research is a worthy cause, and for concerned parties, you can specify that you do not what your donation to fund embryonic stem cell research.
If you have already donated, or are planning to donate, you have my respect.
If you have done nothing BUT the Challenge, then I encourage you to donate after the fact, if not to ALSA, then another charity you identify closely with.
While I may have no personal, vested interest in either, my own charities of choice have been, and probably always will be The American Foundation for Children with AIDS, and the International Justice Mission; devoted to providing treatment to AIDS-stricken children in Africa and stopping global human trafficking respectively.
If you can’t settle on another non-profit to direct time/money to, I would highly recommend either of these.
So I present a counter-challenge: Don’t film yourself doing the Ice-Bucket Challenge. Film yourself donating the money, or donating the time, because THAT’S what matters.
I am all for giving to charity, and I strongly believed that people should be involved in it. But I believe that involvement should be genuine; involvement that goes beyond hashtags for awareness. If you’re going to donate to ALS, then don’t stop at the Challenge this year. Make a concerted effort to donate EVERY year. If that’s not something you can do or want to do, then find another foundation that does more to speak to you.
Don’t let your social media pressure you into defining your charity life. Make a commitment, stick with it, and you might see something amazing come of it.
Louis Petolicchio lives and writes in Central Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.