Generosity Served Cold

Mr. Mezzo did the whole ALS Ice Bucket challenge this evening.

glowing-ice-bucketYes, this is thoroughly behind the times and at the tail-end of the trend, but it has taken this long for said philanthropic faddishness to work its way around to us — an artifact of precisely how deeply middle-aged and uncool we are.

Obviously, this thing has been an incredibly viral phenomenon, and it has earned its share of fans and detractors. Head among the detractors is Will Oremus in Slate, who acknowledges that the campaign has raised some real dollars for ALS research, but also complains:

Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that, for most of the people posting ice bucket videos of themselves on Facebook, Vine, and Instagram, the charity part remains a postscript. Remember, the way the challenge is set up, the ice-drenching is the alternative to contributing actual money. Some of the people issuing the challenges have tweaked the rules by asking people to contribute $10 even if they do soak themselves. Even so, a lot of the participants are probably spending more money on bagged ice than on ALS research.

As for “raising awareness,” few of the videos I’ve seen contain any substantive information about the disease, why the money is needed, or how it will be used. More than anything else, the ice bucket videos feel like an exercise in raising awareness of one’s own zaniness, altruism, and/or attractiveness in a wet T-shirt.

Arielle Pardes of Vice has a similar concern:

The idea is to dump a bucket of ice water over your head and “nominate” others to do the same, as a way of promoting awareness about ALS (a.k.a. Lou Gehrig’s disease). If you don’t accept the challenge, you have to donate $100 to an ALS association of your choice. It’s like a game of Would-You-Rather involving the entire internet where, appallingly, most Americans would rather dump ice water on their head than donate to charity.

There are a lot of things wrong with the Ice Bucket Challenge, but most the annoying is that it’s basically narcissism masked as altruism. By the time the summer heat cools off and ice water no longer feels refreshing, people will have completely forgotten about ALS. It’s trendy to pretend that we care, but eventually, those trends fade away.

Now, I don’t entirely disagree with Oremus’ or Pardes’ assessment. But there’s a lot that doesn’t track with my sidelines view.

First off, the complaint that the rules of the game are for people to show off with this ice-dumping video as a way to avoid donating to a good cause. Except: I don’t know a single person who has done that. Instead, it’s been a yes/and movement: participate in the fun, plus make a donation. And indeed, some presentations of “the rules” makes that part of things explicitly clear.

Sure, there may be some show-offs who are seizing their moment of Internet fame and skipping out on the charitable cause. But last I checked (yesterday’s NYTimes), the ALSA had received $41.8 million in donations since this all started on July 29th. The newspaper provides a telling point of comparison: the Association only received $19.4 million in gifts for its entire FY 2013. So, whatever else this may be about, real honest-to-Gaia charitable donations are being spurred by the frivolity.

And, moving on to complaint #2: if folks are showing off their wonderfulness and their altruism while making a donation? Here’s the thing: “Looking good” and publicly displaying one’s altruism has been part of philanthropy at least since Carnegie built his first library in 1888 — and probably a good sight earlier than that.

As Tom Watson opines in Forbes (responding to the Pardes quote I included above):

I wonder if she’s ever been to a big ticket charity gala? Seen the big shots competing for auction items? Visited a local hospital or museum and noticed the wing named for well-known local philanthropist I.M. Arichguy? Watched the main stage at the Clinton Global Initiative? Heard of corporate philanthropy? And so on.

Narcissism is part of public philanthropy, though it may be too harsh a word. Enlightened self-interest is better — because it’s not just showing off. There’s a reason why people put their names on public foundations and new hospital wings and it’s not just ego; any fundraiser can tell you it encourages others to give. Given a choice of a named gift or an anonymous one, any nonprofit organization would choose the name. Public good works encourage others.

As far as I’m concerned, the ice-bucket videos up on Facebook (or Vine, or Instagram — or wherever the cool kids have fled to now that old geezers like me know about Facebook, Vine and Instagram) are just a new-tech flavor of old-style philanthropy. And considering how many seminars and books are currently being written trying to figure out how to engage “the younger generation” in philanthropic causes, it may be a profitable idea* to examine why this has been so darn successful instead of going into pooh-poohing mode.

And, finally? As far as the awareness-raising goal of the trend? (Complaint #3.) Again, I can see where detractors are partly-right, insofar as there being tremendous variability in how effectively folks’ videos identify 1) that the challenge is for ALS awareness; 2) what ALS is; and 3) why the money and the research is so strongly needed. Nonetheless, videos like Anthony Carbajal’s, which have been amplified by big-number sites like Upworthy and HuffPo, have done a tremendous amount to hit all those data points — and to suggest that the awareness-raising goals of the challenge, if not perfectly enacted by every participant, are still powerful enough to be noticeable:

Or, to quote Bo Stern:

Another headline whined, Is the Ice Bucket Challenge Going to Cure ALS?”  Um, no (and – btw – that’s a stupid bar to set for any fundraiser.)  Critics complain that the challenge is really about feeding our American narcism and does nothing for ALS awareness or funding.  They assert that people should just quietly donate their money and move on with their lives.

I get that they’re cranky, but I think maybe they don’t realize what it’s like to face this insidious disease and then realize that it’s nearly invisible to the rest of the world.  As I watch my husband become entombed inside his own body, I feel desperate for people to understand that this sort of inhumane condition exists. . . . [H]ere’s the deal: We are in for the fight of our lives with this monster, and the very LAST thing I want is for people to give quietly, anonymously, and then slink away. Raise the roof!  Raise a ruckus!  Call all sorts of attention to yourself!  I will be happy for you and every Facebook like you receive, as you nudge ALS an inch or two closer to the collective public consciousness.

As with everything else on this planet, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is a mixed bag, with a dose of the good, the bad, the vain and the open-hearted.

Still, I think it’s more in the positive ledger column than not. ‘Cos when push comes to shove, I’m going to take the votes and voices of those living “on the front lines” over the opinions of any of the rest of us talking heads. (Myself most especially included.)

* See what I did there? I so punny….


Image credit: Grant Fredericksen, shareable via a Creative Commons License (retrieved from )

One thought on “Generosity Served Cold

  1. Pingback: Raising My Hand | Self-Love: It's Just Another Lifestyle Change

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