Is the Ice Bucket Challenge responsible for the deaths of neglected sufferers from other causes? Is the money donated to the ALS foundation being profligately and greedily wasted? Is the Ice Bucket Challenge nothing more than a glorified piece of social pressure and digital bullying? Are other charities suffering because of the high profile and visibility of the Ice Bucket Challenge?
These were just a few of the issues raised and questions that remained unanswered after my first blog about The Ice Bucket Challenge. This led to some heated discussion amongst friends and followers on Facebook and WordPress, some of whom were staunchly defending the strategies of the ALS foundation, whereas others were going for the jugular and suggesting that the Ice Bucket Challenge is the front for an ethically questionable organisation and campaign that has utilised underhanded strategies in order to achieve its aims. After taking a second look at the issue, I still believe that, at worst, the ALS foundation is no worse than any other charitable, non-for-profit organisation, and at best it has actually done a great deal of good both for itself and others.
*N.B. There are a couple of arguments that I have deliberately ignored. I have mentioned why at the end of the blog.
Is the Ice Bucket Challenge nothing more than a glorified piece of social pressure and digital bullying?
One poster suggested that with a viral campaign that garners popularity and ubiquity on the scale of the Ice Bucket Challenge, there comes a social pressure to acquiesce to the challenge regardless of your belief in the validity and integrity of the cause. If friends and family have all done it, the question remains: why haven’t you? What is your problem? Aside from the fact that we all have the right to exercise our free will and ignore a challenge of any kind, I think that this argument overlooks the fact that for any charity to be successful there has to be at least a degree of pressure involved in it in order for it to succeed.
For example, an Oxfam advert that dramatises the poverty consequent of drought and famine in Africa is, by its very design, created to exert pressure on us, just as a campaigner with a clipboard in the high-street approaching us about donating to Help The Aged is. It is the pressure of knowing the disjunction between the lives or socioeconomic situations of the afflicted and ourselves; it is the pressure of knowing that we most certainly are in a position to do something about it, and (at least I like to hope) it is the pressure of our conscience on us to affect change (though this is obviously not always the case). This type of pressure manifests itself in a heavily individualised, intrinsic form and uses the, to paraphrase commenter reason4yourself, compelling back-stories of those from backgrounds or conditions of suffering in order to stir us into action. This form of pressure, by and large, places great faith in, and relies on, altruism and empathy being existent in people – again, sadly, this is not always the case. Perhaps then the alternative form of pressure consequent of the Ice Bucket Challenge may be a necessary evil.
The ALS challenge is still built on the cornerstone of pressure like other charitable organisations and campaigns, however the difference with ALS is that it has inadvertently utilised social pressure as a means for furthering their cause, thus reaching an audience on a scale that I am sure the creators never dreamed they would reach. I believe this social pressure is an innocent, unforeseen by-product, and I also believe that the campaign has ended up with an unintentional twisted duality of consequence and purpose. I think the initial purpose of setting out to raise awareness has been successful (as can be seen from the increase in traffic to the ALS website), yet in comparison the success in the generation of charitable contributions has haemorrhaged on a scale that they never could have imagined in their wildest dreams; it is now thought to be a donation increase of over $80,000,000.
Social pressure has meant that a swathe of people have given up money despite being ignorant of the underlying reasons for having done so. Once again, I have to ask the question: if you were working for ALS, or a sufferer of the disease yourself, would you rather that millions of dollars had been raised and placed in the hands of researchers and medical professionals albeit through ignorance, or that a larger proportion of people were aware of the intricacies of the disease but enormous funding was still required to press forward with research? It seems slightly callous to worry about our own delicate social sensibilities and hang-ups at the expense of someone who has far bigger problems to worry about. There are plenty of other avenues that allow us to express our individuality and personal distinctions, so do we really need to turn a contribution to what is bound to be a short-term charity initiative into a platform for ourselves. I think we forget that social pressure, despite the stigma attached to the term, does not always mean bullying and marginalisation – it is also a benign entity that acts as the catalyst that starts revolutions and acts of defiance against bodies of oppression. It can give courage and empower. In this case it can make a self-centred teenager donate to a charity when they wouldn’t have ordinarily done so.
Are other charities suffering because of the high profile and visibility of the Ice Bucket Challenge?
Another element of dissatisfaction expressed from one poster focused on the commonly-circulating argument that ALS has monopolised charitable contributions, hording potentially vital funds away from other charities. I feel that the ‘social pressure’ issue mentioned above, at least to a certain extent, can challenge this notion. I can’t believe that the current success of the ALS foundation is a permanent recalibration of the non-for-profit organisations; it is the dying star that blazes incandescently for a fleeting moment before it is surrendered once more to the darkness from whence it came.
In my previous post I mentioned that there is not currently any reliable evidence to suggest that the success of ALS has precipitated a downturn in charitable donations to other causes, it is an addendum to the contributions that people ordinarily make to Cancer Research or Mencap or Unicef or whoever else people have deemed fitting of their support. Most crucially, the point that seems to be missed is that it can’t possibly be the case that every single one of the millions upon millions of people who have done the challenge would already have been contributing to a charity, therefore there is an argument to be made that people who never would have ordinarily donated to a cause, or even been aware of the plights of others have been cajoled into action, whether it be through social pressure, fame-seeking vanity or simply because they see it as a bit of stupid fun. ALS seems to have played an alchemist’s trick in getting people (at least a proportion of them) who are ignorant about a charity, or perhaps even devoid of empathy or care, to nevertheless contribute to it. Once more, I think with any charitable organisation, as noble or well-intentioned as they would wish its supporters to be, they would ultimately rather have a body of people (be they ignorant, wonderful or weird) who contribute the funds to help those in need and provide them with hope for a better future. For sufferers and the afflicted, I am sure that the ends are infinitely more important than the means.
On a slightly different line there is further evidence that falsifies the suggestion that the Ice Bucket Challenge has diminished the returns of other charities; BBC research has proven that charities including Water Aid and Cancer Research have experienced abnormal growth in terms of internet traffic to their sites, as well as in the volume of their donations, as some challengers have opted to donate to charities of their own choosing. Cancer Research, for example, estimate that they have received three million pounds in excess of what they ordinarily would have expected over a comparable period of time; this is hardly the case of an alternative charity being marginalised, nor can such a vast sum of money be considered merely scraps from the ALS table.
Is the Ice Bucket Challenge responsible for the deaths of neglected sufferers from other causes?
At the most extreme end of responses to the initial post, one particularly scathing assertion was put forward that that the Ice Bucket Challenge may have led to the deaths of other people, due to drawing support away from other causes. To me, this seems obtuse in the extreme. If this were true, would it not also be the case that every person who has ever sat on their arse and watched a British Heart Foundation commercial and not contributed, or ignored the Macmillan lady outside the supermarket could be considered a murderer by proxy if we accept this idea as gospel. Are we now sitting at home considering anyone who is ignorant or apathetic as manifestations of the grim reaper for the needy? If we are levelling this criticism at people that have contributed to ALS then why not?
Should we say that anybody who spends any money on anything other than the most primitive of commodities is therefore also complicit in the deaths of leukaemia sufferers or heart attack victims? Accusing somebody of tacitly instigating fatalities by contributing to a charity (whatever the charity is) is as foolish as saying that someone buying a new guitar has exacerbated the spread of Ebola in Western Africa because the money for it could have gone to Doctors Without Borders. This argument also overlooks the fact that ALS is a terminal illness that will cause in the region of 1200 fatalities annually, so if we fail to contribute to that cause and the discovery of a cure, by the same logic, have we not also indirectly contributed to deaths?
The bigger issue is perhaps why so much help is needed from the general public, when our governments could have used the disgraceful amounts of money spent on bailing out banks, the hundred of millions of pounds that have gone into funding war and weapons research and the profligate subsidising of all manner of unnecessary, frivolous expenses for MPs to support far far worthier causes. Of course we need to do everything that we can to help charities out, but it seems like this responsibility falls upon ‘everyday people’ far more than it does upon others who are much better positioned to make potentially life-changing donations.
Is the money from the ALS challenged being profligately and greedily wasted?
Some of the sharpest criticisms that have been levelled at the ALS foundations have been that the money they have received has not been fairly distributed to its varying factions. The most quoted statistic is that only 27% of the money received by the foundation goes towards research. This number has been used to decry and defame the foundation and portray them as charlatans. However, not only does the use of this statistic in isolation ignore the fact that 19% of all charitable donations to ALS go directly towards the funding of tragically complex and expensive patient care, but also 32% of the money is reinvested in educating healthcare professionals, care-workers and home-helps in how to treat and deal with sufferers of ALS, as well as funding higher-education programmes that encourage graduates to undertake research into the disease.
That accounts for 78% of the money, and to me that is 78% ethically and sensibly distributed; it is also concurrent with the amount of money that is invested into meaningful projects within the vast majority of other more traditionally prominent charities (with some notable exceptions such as Mencap and Save The Children who invest almost all donations into tangibly beneficial projects). Sadly, the tales of corporate greed in ALS are true; they are also true for almost every charity in existence, where it is not uncommon to find CEOs, shareholders and GMs who are earning salaries between £300,000-£900,000 a year in charitable organisations that have achieved ‘profits’ that are comparable to those received by ALS this year. Maybe that is just the going rate for people with their level of expertise who are running organisations that regularly see incomes bigger than many major businesses, but I can’t help feel there is something unconscionable about commissioning a salary that high within this industry.
Ultimately, there are aspects of the ALS foundation’s conduct that are ethically indefensible, but they are endemic of the cancers of corporate greed and avarice that blight a depressing number of charities; in short this is not a new phenomenon and the ALS foundation are no more or less reckless, immoral or greedy than most of their contemporaries. As I argued in my first blog, perhaps the greatest achievement of the Ice Bucket Challenge is that it has unwittingly led to heightened levels of awareness and raised profiles. Initially, I suggested that it had inadvertently helped to gain additional public exposure for charities such as Water Aid and Cancer Research, but what it has also done, which I failed to acknowledge previously, is to challenge us to question the ethical responsibilities of charities and to raise awareness of the way that charities redistribute the contributions that they have received.
*N.B. I have consciously decided not to address criticism of the fact that the researchers operating on behalf of the ALS foundation reportedly use embryonic stem cells as part of their testing, the reason being that I see this as a wider biological, theological and philosophical debate that I don’t think is atomised with the central issues regarding the ALS foundation. I have also omitted the two cases of people who have ended up dying after performing ridiculous subversions of the Ice Bucket Challenge (jumping off an 80 foot cliff into a quarry with an ice bucket and downing an entire bottle of bourbon whilst being dunked), due to the fault lying with their warping of the parameters of the challenge rather than any inherent dangers with the challenge.