The Problem with Viral Fundraisers

ice-bucket-challenge-headerYou have to have been under a rock to have not seen the latest fundraising campaign to take the world by storm. Everyone from the pop culture icons to athletes to random guys down the road from you have been posting videos of them doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

The problem with the Ice Bucket Challenge is that many people seem to be missing the point of the Ice Bucket Challenge. It’s supposed to be a fundraiser for your national ALS society or fundraising group. However, many people are guilty of just dumping a bucket of water on their heads, posting the videos online and having a laugh for their 15 seconds of fame with complete disregard for the cause.

It’s not just the ice bucket challenge but the whole idea of needing a fundraising or awareness campaign to actually make headway for your charity is really sort of sad. And the biggest problem with viral campaigns is the sort of “slacktivism” that hides the real goal of the campaign.

First, let’s get the dollars of the Ice Bucket Challenge out of the way. Over the last month, the ALSA reports having raised almost $80 million and the addition of 1.7 million new donors. The fundraising increase is a nearly 3,100% increase over the $2.5 million raised in the same period over the same period in 2013.

It’s great that ALS foundations worldwide are seeing a massive increase in donations. Over the last few decades, we’ve come a long way in fighting many incurable diseases, syndromes and medical conditions that are virtual death sentences. However, ALS has always been on the backburner in terms of awareness and fundraising when compared to the likes of AIDS and cancer fundraising. The fact that they’re now getting more money than they likely know what to do with is fantastic, even if less than half of that money will go to research and patients.

However, it also highlights a massive problem. The Ice Bucket Challenge isn’t the first viral fundraiser and it certainly won’t be the last. And while viral campaigns are good for a very big increase in attention, they tend not to have a lasting impact.

michelle-obama-bring-back-our-girlsThe best examples of viral slacktivism come to us via other #HashtagActivism campaigns that went nowhere. Just look at #Kony2012 and #BringBackOurGirls. Both these trended on Twitter and Facebook for a few days or weeks but that was it. There was no sustained interest once celebrities and your friends stopped caring. You were just going along with it because everyone else did it. It’s more peer pressure and feeling good about yourself for minimum effort.

And this is called slacktivism because you’re bringing awareness to something without actually doing anything about it. When Bell does the #BellLetsTalk campaign for mental health awareness, at least tweeting with that hashtag is worth 5¢ to mental heath causes. It’s a lazy way for you to raise money but at least it’s contributing, indirectly, to the cause.

By tweeting #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls or whatever catchy slacktivist cause your favourite semi-relevant celebrity has chosen to champion this week, you aren’t really doing anything to help the cause. Bringing awareness doesn’t mean anything if no one is taking action behind it. Tweeting #BringBackOurGirls means nothing if no one does anything to save the abducted children of Chibok.

And so that brings me back to the Ice Bucket Challenge. It seems as though the first week of the Ice Bucket Challenge was all about people dumping buckets of ice water on their head. The ALSA are trying to get this known as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (or #ALSIceBucketChallenge) but few people remembered to mention that part in their videos.

charlie-sheen-ice-bucket-challengeInstead, the early attitude was “I’m doing this funny thing on video and I’m going to get my friends to do it so I can laugh at them too.” The first celebrity to properly do the Ice Bucket Challenge was Charlie Sheen. He didn’t dump a bucket of ice water on his head. He dumped $10,000 on his head, donated it to ALSA and told his challenge nominees to match his donation, not dump a bucket of ice water on their heads. Instead, because he’s Charlie Sheen and didn’t do the ice bucket thing “properly,” he was vilified online. He should have been lauded as a hero, history of tiger blood, winning and whatnot notwithstanding, because he was the first big name to point out that this was a fundraiser, not America’s Funniest Home Videos.

That highlights the problem with most “viral” fundraising campaigns, be it the Ice Bucket Challenge, Movember or wearing pink for October’s Breast Cancer Awareness month, many people just stop at the easy thing to do to feel good about themselves. My friends and family who have dumped buckets of ice on themselves or grown a mustache or worn pink might be bringing awareness to the cause but they aren’t helping if no one puts their money where their mouth is.

The other problem is that people binge on helping charity and then ignore it until the next time something viral comes up. Medical research teams need money year-round, not just in October, November or during the heat of summer. I’m not saying that you should donate $100 a month to an ALS or cancer charity. If you can spare five or ten dollars a month, even only a couple of dollars a month, to make regular contributions to a charity you feel strongly about, I’d prefer you doing that than partaking in some meaningless feel-good scheme like dumping a bucket of ice water on your head with no intention to help beyond that.

And now we’re going to have a bunch of other charities spend time and money trying to figure out what their Ice Bucket Challenge will be. They’re going to be too busy trying to figure out what they can do to force a viral sensation not realizing that it has to be unique and it has to grow organically in order to grow to Ice Bucket Challenge levels. The risk is that charitable organizations will be too busy worrying about this and not enough on their cause.

But let’s not dump a bucket of ice on our heads and say we’re making a difference. Awareness without any action backing it up doesn’t actually help. If you actually think just dumping ice on your head helps, you won’t have to worry about getting brain freeze.

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