Rhodri Davies, Programme Leader, Giving Thought

Rhodri Davies

Head of Policy

Charities Aid Foundation

The role of giving


20 August 2014

The ice-bucket challenge (IBC) craze has been sweeping the internet over the last week. It started in the US as a campaign to raise awareness and money for  amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) (known as Motor Neurone Disease in the UK) and it involves celebrities and mere mortals posting videos of themselves emptying a bucket of icy cold water over their heads and then challenging someone else to do the same, or give to charity.

A lot of words have already been written about the ice-bucket challenge. Which is unsurprising: it’s about social media and charity and wet celebrities, so it’s basically at the nexus of what makes a good tabloid news story. We’ve even reached the point where people are starting to give their contrarian views of why the whole thing is terrible (such as this comment piece in the Daily Telegraph).

I just want to have a look at a couple of the issues the ice-bucket challenge has thrown up:

1 So wait…charity is the punishment? 

The slightly counterintuitive thing about the IBC is that the choice presented to participants is “do this uncomfortable thing that will make you look stupid (although not too stupid), or give money to charity”. Which seems to suggest that giving money to support ALS is somehow worse than making yourself freezing wet. Is this not quite a negative slant on fundraising?

Obviously the idea of doing something unpleasant (sitting in a bath of baked beans, doing a marathon etc.) in order to raise money for charity is not new, but usually the donations are given in recognition of an individual doing the unpleasant thing, not by the individual themself in order to avoid doing it.

Or maybe we should think about it the other way round: given that it would quite awkward to have people simply nominating other people to give money to charity (it would certainly be awkward for us Brits), perhaps the clever bit about the IBC is that it allows people to achieve the same thing less directly by presenting it as a jokey choice between giving to charity and something obviously worse (and slightly silly).

2 Isn’t this all just vanity?

The Telegraph article seems most offended by the idea that the IBC is more about people showing off than about truly connecting with a cause, and is just another example of social media narcissism. In a way that conclusion is hard to argue with, but my question would be: so what? The IBC is about awareness raising and fundraising. In terms of the former, the fact that seemingly every celebrity in the western world (and a growing number of prominent individuals in China) have done it is going to do more to raise awareness of ALS than  hundreds of deeply serious articles and debates about the issues would achieve. OK, the level of awareness raised is pretty shallow, but conversely it is very broad (so a lot of people get a little bit of awareness).

In terms of charity fundraising: yes, of course it would be better if people were deeply connected to the cause and giving because of that connection. However, we need to be pragmatic and acknowledge that there are many different reasons that individuals give to charity, and those include peer pressure and social status. From a fundraising point of view, if the IBC is driven largely by these, then so be it. It doesn’t mean that plenty of other donors aren’t giving because of much deeper connections to the cause. Horses for courses.

3 Is this another example of slacktivism?

Critics (including that Telegraph commentator) have also argued that the IBC is another example of people doing something easy online to support charity, rather than getting involved in “proper philanthropy”. I’m not sure this accusation quite works in this case. Apart from anything else, claiming that the ice-bucket challenge is the same as clicking “like” on facebook is doesn’t seem quite right. I can do the latter at my desk in work, but I’d be interested to know what would happen if I filmed myself pouring a bucket of ice over my head in the office. The level of engagement required to take part in the IBC is actually quite high. OK, the engagement might be more with the act of doing the challenge than the underlying cause, but it’s not something that you can do without a reasonable amount of thought and preparation.

The bigger question is whether things like the IBC are a threat to traditional philanthropy because they allow people to feel as though they have “done their bit for charity” without doing anything actually useful. This is a valid concern, but so far no one has the answer. We do not yet know whether slacktivism will be a drain on charitable giving, or whether it will be something totally new and additional.

Anyway, the IBC is definitely of the moment and good luck to it. It will, like other social media phenomena, almost certainly disappear in fairly short order to be replaced by something else. Perhaps it can highlight a few things about how social media can be used effectively by charities, but I suspect it doesn’t tell us much about charity and philanthropy itself. The frivolity and surface nature of the IBC is obvious, but that just means that we should accept it for what it is, rather than drawing any deeper conclusions about charitable giving as a whole.