What Does the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Say About Us?

If you have not heard about the ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) Ice Bucket Challenge (#IceBucketChallenge), you are not reading this blog, because you clearly have no phone, no computer, and no friends. It’s a viral sensation that has seen the contributions for ALS charities rise by over 1000% over last years numbers. And growing.

Before I begin, know that I am VERY much in favour of this, have done it myself (dedicated to a friend of mine who has ALS), and hope it continues until such times as ALS charities have enough money to finally buy a cure.

Now the down side, and the unfortunate point of this blog; The giving will not continue much longer, because the only thing faster than a viral topic, is its relegation into permanent obscurity.

This will not cause a fundamental shift in either our individual attitude towards charitable giving, or how charities do their fund-raising. This worked once, now it’s done, and ALS were the lucky recipients. It could have easily been Children With Cancer, or pretty much any other charity, because it’s not the disease that caught our attention, it was everyone else’s attention to the challenge that caught our attention.

But why?

Why does it take something like this to get us to give in the first place? I say US, because I absolutely include myself. I am one of the majority walking right by people holding charity buckets looking to help causes that I cannot be bothered to read. Headphones in, eyes down, my destination and my own problems effectively crowding out any thought of those less fortunate.

Does this make me a bad person? No, it makes me average, yet if you don’t do the Ice Bucket Challenge you are treated as a social leper. Our hypocrisy knows no bounds, it seems.

Yes, this is a cynical view, and I have absolutely no desire to dampen anyone’s enthusiasm, but I think it’s time for a little perspective before the true, more permanent advantage, is lost. However unattractive and un-charitable that advantage may seem, only the results count.

The truth is, unfortunately, an equally cynical proposition; that empathy is in short supply in the average human genome, but fear of being ostracised is not, nor is the need to avoid the feeling of guilt. This is why the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge went viral, and this is where most charities go wrong; they are simply not cynical – or smart – enough to manipulate either the right emotional drivers (which are seldom even approaching altruistic), or social media.

Perhaps this is the wake up call to realise that it’s really not about awareness of the disease itself, it’s about getting contributions. This is not only perfectly OK, but far more honest, and much like a homeless person’s sign”Will work for alcohol.”, when it comes to charitable giving, the end often justifies the means.

Think I’m being TOO cynical? Go and ask 10 people who have done the ALS challenge, what ALS is the acronym for, and I will be willing to bet at least half of them will not know. Ask again in a month and even fewer will.

But that’s OK too, as long as they gave, AND got 3 others to give, when prior to the challenge they had probably never heard of ALS (or its regional equivalents). This was the true genius of the ice bucket challenge, as ALS is no more deserving of either attention or money than a charity fighting children’s cancer. Just ask a friend of mine whose 5 year old daughter is fighting brain cancer where her priorities lay.

The fact is that most of us have a very limited capacity to focus on things that do not affect us directly, but when confronted in the right way, and hopefully with humour, we are ALL very generous. That we don’t give as much as we should the rest of the time does not make us bad people either, it just means those amazing individuals who have dedicated their lives to helping others need to make giving easier, and more in-line with what makes US feel good. More fun preferably, but at the very least, more interesting.

That’s sad, but inescapably true, and it’s time we embrace it.

In the end, it does not matter where the money comes from. Ask anyone with ALS if they care whether or not the cure came from someone who cared or someone who didn’t give a damn. Only getting better matters.

So if you did the challenge, that’s great, but keep your condemnation against those who didn’t to yourselves, your single act of generosity gives you no right to judge, and they may have other obligations of which you have no concept.

And charities, wake up, people will give a lot more if properly motivated, and I am more than happy to be taken [along] for the ride.

If you think I'm wrong, please tell me why!

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