Commentary

I'll Have That Campaign With Ice

Professor Harold Hill was a sham, but he at least could show his "contributors" some real musical instruments. Fundraising for a cause is pitching an invisible trombone. There will be no River City Boys Band here. And if the charity funds research and patient care for a condition like amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a.k.a. Lou Gehrig's disease, the sell is a tad harder. There is no cure, and when such is the case it is much easier for would-be donors to recoil, almost reflexively, from the solicitation -- either from atavistic fear or from the go-to rationalization: "What's the point. My money can do no good here. I'll spend it on the marching band." 

Every one of the 5,600 new ALS diagnoses per year is a bucket of ice water down the back of the patient getting the news, but the American Cancer Society expects 1,665,540 new cancer diagnoses for 2014. And there is an array of heart diseases, other neurological syndromes like MS, there's COPD, incontinence and on and on -- and every single one of them has a foundation asking you for money right now. Check your inbox. 

On the other hand, individual donations to ALS will go further than the same donation to the American Cancer Society. A Boston ALS patient, former Boston College baseball player Pete Frates, has gone very far, and done a huge service to the ALS Association, with his social media campaign called the "Ice Bucket Challenge" (#IceBucketChallenge) that you, reader, already know about. 

And the fact that you know about it, and may have joined it already, and certainly know that Mr./Ms. (name a celebrity, athlete, politician, movie star, comedian, talk show host, fashion icon, religious leader, noted author) has dunked him/herself in full view of Twitterdom, also shows the power of social media to propagate an idea extremely fast. 

ALS Association spokesperson Carrie Munk (who has probably been interviewed more times this past couple of weeks than the Dalai Lama) told me that the organization can only marvel at what Frates was able to achieve with a simple social media gesture. “Only marvel” because it can't be repeated by the organization itself. 

Jacob Davidson, however, makes an interesting point in a column in Time. He rightly points out that there’s some self-serving afoot with this campaign. Indeed, some of these videos border on pure narcissism, and even self aggrandizement, or maybe both, as you can see here. It’s really, for many of these people, not about the disease at all -- it’s about me, which is kind of what social media is about, right?

He also notes that most people who accept the challenge to post videos of themselves getting an ice water shower never really mention ALS. The other thing is that it really is kind of an "out." You are challenged to take the dunk. If you don't, you donate to the association. Therefore, everyone pictured getting iced is presumably not donating. 

Yes, but the numbers don't lie. Frates has beaten the association's own donation numbers: over 70,000 new donors; $2.3 million compared with $25,000 in donations July 29 to Aug. 12 versus the period last year. Four million dollars versus $1.1 million if you include local chapters. 

Munk says the association does the tried-and-true approaches, such as matching donations, and most donations are individual. She adds that the Ice Bucket Challenge offers substantially the same kind of hook the association employs with individual donors throughout the year, "which is about connection to the cause. Although the Ice Bucket Challenge is a little different because it has a friend-to-friend challenge." 

And, she concedes, it's a tactic that the association can't easily adopt. "I can tell you that one reason it is so successful is because it started so organically by a person with ALS. Could it be created by our charity or another? It's one of those amazing things that happened that shows the power of social media, and I find it hard to believe that we could do it."

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