The cold war — icebucketchallenge and its detractors

The Internet has been getting a bit hot under the collar about icebucketchallenge this week. It seems this mostly harmless* viral has broken some unspoken rules about charity giving. There we were thinking that the only thing you probably shouldn’t do when it comes to charity giving is use it to cover up some massive tax dodging. But no. There appears to be a whole host of other tacit rules that we should be following.

 Thou shalt not steal

Macmillan were first to feel the wrath of The Internet when they were accused of stealing #icebucketchallenge from ALS Association (ALSA), the US charity that popularised the stunt. It’s an interesting one this. On the one hand it did look like powerhouse Macmillan had muscled in with its slick campaigning operation and snatched icebucket from little old ALSA (or it’s UK equivalent the MND Association). Many of its supporters were quick to call out Macmillan on this perceived theft, creating a bit of a PR fail for the organisation, although one that raised £5million for them in the process.

But to steal something, someone has to own it and who really owns #icebucketchallenge? As Macmillan correctly pointed out, ALSA didn’t create #icebucketchallenge, citing a lone cancer campaigner in New Zealand as the original source. They were simply using it, as ALSA in America had done, as a fundraising hook, all be it with far more marketing clout and budget than most charities have.

macmillan and ice bucket challenge

The genesis of a hashtag campaign is always tricky to unpick, something Neo Strategist Charlie explored in more detail a while back. But do we need to unpick and attribute ownership? Or could it be that we think of these hashtags less as a branded product and more as a white-labelled device that any organisation (or supporter) can pick up and use to raise funds? Why not.

Thou shalt not publicly give to charities

 One of the main criticisms levelled at #icebucketchallenge (as with #nomakeupselfie earlier this year) was the apparent self-serving nature of it. “Why don’t you just set up a monthly direct debit and STOP HAVING FUN?” being the key refrain from people who would prefer charity giving to be done as quietly and joylessly as possible. Yet to dismiss the esteem-boosting nature of this donation is to dismiss one of the key reasons people give to charities. People give to get. That might just be the warm, fuzzy glow you get from knowing you’ve helped someone/something other than yourself or it could be the massive ego boost that comes from having an Oxford University business school named after you (hi, Wafic Said). Either way, we’re getting something. Let’s not pretend that charitable giving isn’t at its core mostly all about us.

Thou shalt not give to causes that are less deserving than others

ALSA may have begun the week as heroes but they are looking a little more tarnished now. Accusations of animal testing and even –  shock horror — paying their staff abound. “Besides, ALS only affects around 30,000 people in the US” “What about Syria?” said some. The message being that the amount of attention and funds ALSA or MND Association gained this week isn’t proportionate to the scale of the problem. Someone even helpfully produced a bar chart to attest to this.

There’s something mean spirited about this response, and something naive in its understanding of human nature. Perhaps in an ideal world we would only give after having carried out an objective analysis of charitable cause versus scale of problem versus urgency. Probably something involving an excel spreadsheet and lots of earnest pen chewing. But we don’t. Giving, certainly on an individual level, is not primarily a rational act. It’s emotional. To use a crude example, it’s why charities don’t lead with the stats on crop failure and undernutrition rates in East Africa but (still) show us the image of the starving child. We might not like the unsophisticated nature of this, or of ourselves, but there’s no denying its truth.

There is something unthinking in people throwing caution and ice to the wind and donating to a charity they haven’t investigated and have no affiliation towards. But should we bemoan this? Or should we just admire the random good fortune (as that is what it is) of ALSA  and be happy, amazed, that people have given $96 million (and at least £2million in the UK) that they probably otherwise wouldn’t have done to help address what is, if not the most pressing problem of our times, still devastating in its own concentrated way?

Charities and their critics have every right to analyse the rights and wrongs of fundraising campaigns. We all want our money and our emotional investments to be used most effectively. But pouring cold water on a campaign that doesn’t tick all the boxes in some imaginary best practice checklist just feels more killjoy than constructive.

Finally, for a lesson in how to graciously express your own reservations about a charity campaign and promote your own cause without raining on anyone’s parade, here’s Matt Damon and his pitch perfect response to #icebucketchallenge.

*we won’t talk about this guy