Good for Barack Obama. While vacationing on Martha’s Vineyard, he refused Ethel Kennedy’s ice bucket challenge. You know the saying: Just because every idiot in the world is jumping off of a cliff doesn’t mean you should too. No question, the group-think summertime craze is proving an effective way to raise funds. But that doesn’t make it right.
The challenge, as you're probably aware, is that someone dares you either to douse yourself with a bucket full of water and ice or send $100 to the ALS Association. Dares, I've always thought, bring out the worst in people.
"Eat this earthworm."
"No, of course not."
"I dare you to eat this earthworm."
In this case, the worst has been brought out in droves. George W., Charlie Sheen, and Oprah are only a few of the luminaries who have all posted videos showing themselves getting soaked, as have tens of thousands of ordinary folks. Why? The humiliation of getting wet, apparently, is better than having to cut a big check (although to be fair, many get doused and donate anyway). Or perhaps it's that, celebrity and non-celebrity alike, people crave attention, likes, and hits so much that they'll do most anything.
For his part, Obama said he'd give instead. If you're going to play the game, I guess, that's the right approach. And a lot of people must agree. The ALS Association — the acronym stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's disease — didn't invent the concept of the challenge but surely is delighted someone did. Since the fad began, the association says it's seen $41.8 million in contributions — a big jump from a paltry $2.1 million in the same period last year.
Meanwhile, big disease advocates such as the American Lung Association, the American Cancer Society, and the Alzheimer's Association must be eyeing the challenge with envy, marveling not only at the ALS Association's growing bank account but also the publicity it's garnered. Are there to be future ice bucket challenges for them? Or perhaps variations on the theme — the hot wax challenge, maybe? The prospect of third-degree burns might prove even more effective than cold water.
And, one has to ask, why the focus on ALS? According to the Centers for Disease Control, far more people die each year from heart disease (596,577 in 2011), cancer (576,691) or Alzheimer's (84,974) than ALS (perhaps 5,600). But somehow, the ALS Association is now the charity du jour, benefitting from a clever idea that went viral. And that, unfortunately, illustrates the real problem all good causes face: getting people to notice them.
You would think the merits of something — eradicating a disease, educating the impoverished, or cleaning up the environment — would be enough to move people to be altruistic. But that's rarely the case. Every charity somehow needs to break through the clutter of competing pleas. For big donors, that means one-on-one appeals. For smaller donors, group activities seem to work.
Some have criticized the Challenge as slacktivism, as if the millennial generation was somehow uniquely trying to get away with doing as little as possible. But slacking off is an age-old phenomenon and non-profits, knowing that, have learned to dress up their appeals as something else. Thus they hold grand banquets, the purpose of which is to figure out how to get people to pay more for a meal than it actually costs. So too, we've seen a proliferation of runs, walks, and rides — the Walk for Hunger, the Jingle Bell Run (for arthritis), or the Pan-Mass Challenge (cancer). Mass perambulation is largely unconnected to any of these causes, of course, but for some reason is an effective way to get people to start giving.
The ice bucket challenge follows these antecedents but adds a new and troubling twist. Charities have always been comfortable using guilt as a motivator — children and puppies in danger seem to work especially well. But the challenge crosses a line. Those issuing challenges are not only telling others what cause to support but also saying that if they don’t, they must suffer a penalty. Threats to compel giving? It seems the opposite of what it really means to be charitable.
Tom Keane can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org