Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Ice, Fundraising, Disease and Cynicism

If you've been on any form of social media in the last week you've seen it. My feeds have been filled with the videos, overflowing with them in fact, much like, well, a bucket of ice water. The ubiquitous ice challenge to raise funds and awareness for ALS has not only filled social media with videos but with controversy as people debate the angles: Does this really help with awareness of ALS? Is it right to put people on the spot to donate to a charity when they may prefer to give to a different cause? Is this kind of viral fundraising a form of "slacktivism"? Are people just jumping on the bandwagon and forgetting the cause at its heart? Or is this a form of clever and inspired fundraising, designed to take advantage of social media, peer pressure and our herd mentality, using them for good?

Here's where I stand: I don't think there is one "right" answer, but I think the cynicism is a bit overblown given the very success of the phenomenon.

I think the ice challenge has done a great deal to raise at least some degree of awareness of ALS. It is a disease with which I am familiar not through personal experience as thankfully it has spared my family and friends but through my fascination with disease and disease processes (little known fact about me: when I was younger I toyed with the idea of a career in virology, the study of those tricky little viruses that plague us, literally). ALS is one of the terrifying ones, a disease that destroys individuals, families and lives, but one that is far too often in the shadows as it is not exceptionally common. The ice challenge has ensured that even those who have never given it much thought have heard the acronym, and there is some degree of success in that alone, I think.

There have been those who suggest it is wrong to put people on the spot for a cause such as this, as perhaps the cause closest to their heart is another disease or issue, and I suppose I see some validity in that line of thought, although donating to one cause does not preclude donating to another.

And then there is the charge of slacktivism and bandwagon jumping. I suppose both are true to some degree, but what true harm - I mean real, genuine harm - comes from a fundraiser of this nature? Slacktivism in this case seems preferable to nothing-ivism, and I've seen people jump on worse bandwagons and with far more detrimental effect. Perhaps there are those who will dump a bucket of ice on their head, not donate a cent and never give it another thought. Or perhaps it will inspire a few people - just a few - to look up ALS on Wikipedia and learn more. I would suggest if it encourages even a few to educate themselves or donate then it has had a beneficial effect, and perhaps our cynicism, while understandable, should be toned down a bit.

Is it clever and inspired fundraising? I would say yes, and it has effectively utilized social media to achieve a goal. Will it be a distant memory in a few weeks? I would also say yes, but the benefits will linger both in terms of the money raised and the simple fact that every person in North America has probably seen three letters - ALS - far more often in the last week than they likely have in their entire lives. I must admit I was initially skeptical about the entire thing until I realized how much those letters were filling my social media feeds and what that meant in terms of public relations for ALS-related organizations. It is, as they say, the kind of publicity money can't buy.

The final question? Will I be dumping a bucket of ice on my head?

No, but I did send a donation in support of ALS, something I had not done before as while I was familiar with the disease even I hadn't thought about donating as my usual donations go to diseases that have touched my life. So, in a sense, I am living proof that the ice challenge works, because it worked for me, reminding me that at times it's good to give to a new worthy cause and reminding me of a disease that I've known about for years but only thought about rarely.

The ice challenge for ALS: no right answer, and maybe not perfect - but I don't think anyone can argue the effectiveness of a viral fundraising campaign that has, to date, raised an estimated 41 million dollars for research, a remarkable achievement by any benchmark, even those thought of by cynics like me.

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