Stop Criticizing the Ice Bucket Challenge


Apparently it’s not enough to do good deeds anymore, unless you’re doing them “correctly” or for the right reasons.

Perhaps you’ve participated in the now infamous ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, in which people video tape themselves getting a bucket of ice water dumped on their heads, donate, challenge others to do the same, and then post the entire thing on Facebook and other social media. You probably did it, donated, and felt pretty good about yourself, right? Well wipe that smug smile off your face, because some people think donations that come via marketing campaigns and viral memes are negative.

Yup, that’s right. You’re donating incorrectly and for all the wrong reasons. You big jerks.

Nevermind the fact that as of August 20, the Ice Bucket Challenge helped raise $31.5 million (and growing) for ALS research. Because (and stop me if you’ve heard this in the last couple of weeks) it shouldn’t take Facebook and videos of ourselves getting buckets of freezing cold water dumped on our heads to donate. We should donate because it’s the right thing to do, not because we’re guilted or pressured into it by friends, family, and social media, according to the critics.

Look, if someone had told me a month ago that I’d be showering myself with freezing cold water and donating to charity because of it, I would’ve mocked them. In fact, I was so dubious about the Ice Bucket Challenge that I held off on doing it, even though I had been repeatedly nominated. I only did it after I found out the challenge had actually led to a spike in donations.

Because here’s the thing — it doesn’t matter how or why people donate. It just matters that some good is being done.

Same goes for this story making the rounds, about a bunch of Starbucks customers in Tampa who started a “pay it forward” campaign, in which each person paid for the coffee of the person behind them. Hundreds of people in a row performed the good deed, but it ended when one pompous blogger intentionally broke the streak because the Starbucks baristas had begun asking each customer if they wished to continue the streak. To him, that violated the unwritten rules of good deed doing because it was more peer pressure than anything else.

Bullshit. Utter bullshit. Because good deeds are good deeds, even when they might have been prodded into existence by a little guilt.

Who among us hasn’t taken our kids’ fund raisers to work and hit up coworkers? Ever dug a dollar out of your pocket at the supermarket because the Scouts/Cheerleaders/Pop Warner are having a charitable drive? Volunteers man phone banks and make calls to raise money for charity as well.

If you gave to any of these, you’ve done something good. Something worthy of celebration. So what if you felt some pressure from social media to donate to ALS? I bet a lot of people knew nothing about the disease before they did the challenge and donated. And so what if a barista asks you if you want to buy coffee for the person behind you? First of all, you can always say no. There’s no shame in that. Second, I’m hoping knowing about “pay it forward” will prompt people to do it more often.

The world is so fucked up right now. Whether it’s racial tensions exploding in Missouri, another truce broken in Gaza, beloved actors committing suicide, or journalists being beheaded, we’re under siege from bad news. The world strikes me as off kilter and our humanity has never felt so fragile.

So in the face of all that, I think it’s pretty abhorrent and ill-advised to sit there and criticize things that are helping people.

No one deserves a medal for doing the Ice Bucket Challenge. Our donations don’t make us superheroes and we shouldn’t pat ourselves on the back and be done with charitable giving and random acts of kindness, simply because we took part. But you know what else people who give to charity don’t deserve? Condescending and misplaced scorn from people who have nothing better to do than knock people doing something positive.

In a fit of irony, those railing against the millions raised the “wrong way” for ALS are guilty of the very same narcissism they allegedly abhor in others. So let’s criticize actual problems and misdeeds, and celebrate the fact that for a little while, we all came together and did something positive.

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8 thoughts on “Stop Criticizing the Ice Bucket Challenge

  1. I don’t know if I’d do this challenge or not. It seems kinda fun and definitely different. I would love to donate if I had the extra money but I’m having a hard time financially right now. Doing this challenge, in my opinion, is no different that wearing pink for breast cancer awareness or sticking an awareness ribbon magnet to the back of your car. I heard about the Starbucks thing also and I definitely would have participated in that because I won a gift card a while back and I could have afforded to pay that one forward.
    Angie Bailey recently posted..Review of Grandma Chonga’s SalsaMy Profile

  2. Very little good is being done, in all likelihood. And when you consider the good that could be done with that money, its a net loss for society, and that is my problem. Its a showy “look at me” display that will have very little real positive impact and in all reality probably many negative outcomes.

    Consider that reliable estimates suggest that 50% of the donations aren’t “new” donations but is actually money that would have been donated elsewhere.

    Consider that ALS, while horrible, is incredibly rare (5,600 new cases per year).

    Almost all unexpected windfalls are in fact, bad for charity. Canned food drives leave the drive recipients with lots of outdated cans of food other people didn’t want and that often are a storage problem for the drive recipient. It may be great that ALSA gets all this money now, but the key to beating a disease like this is long-term research, which requires long-term funding, not a one-off power punch. So, best case: ALSA will sit on this cash for a decade or two, or worst case: it will spend it all and essentially waste it. That assumes the money influx doesn’t ruin the organization itself.

    ALSA has already spent $100M on this disease, and there is no indication that they are anywhere close to $100M. Meanwhile, you could donate your $100 to an organization that helps someone today through medical treatment, education, assistance, food, what have you. Are you saying it doesn’t matter that ALS now has $100 it can do nothing with and some organization that could held feed, cloth, educate or medicate a sick child has $50 less?

    Its a silly, showy, “look at me” campaign with little to no positive impact and a couple potentially very real negative ones.

    I was a wary participant and learned much of this after the fact, which simply confirmed by worst fears.

  3. While I have no real problem with buying a coffee for the person behind you in Starbucks, I’d point out that it is really just relatively well off people buying coffee for other relatively well off or rich people.

    Its a nice, feel-good thing to do, maybe, but if you want to do “actual” good rather than simply transfer some of your wealth to other wealthy people, quietly donate $5/week or month to a charity hospital or to a charity that gives kids much needed school supplies.
    Bryan recently posted..16,425My Profile

  4. Sorry Bryan, I believe you are very wrong.

    This is “actual” good, whether you think so or not. Good is good, and not everyone at Starbucks is a millionaire. I pay it forward at Dunkin Donuts when I want to something randomly kind for people, and it doesn’t matter if the person behind me turns out to be a rich asshole or not — it’s still something positive. Just as money for ALS research is positive. And with so much actual negative out there right now, I’m not about to sit here and nitpick when people do something good.

    So we’ll have to very much agree to disagree.
    Daddy Files recently posted..Stop Criticizing the Ice Bucket ChallengeMy Profile

  5. Seriously Bryan? (who will probably never come back and check on his post)
    If people had your attitude about donating to rare diseases, just think were we would be on cancer today? How about Polio? I am so dumbfounded by your answer I can’t even type. According to your numbers the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised 50% of all of the money they have put towards it EVER…in a few short months.
    That’s mind-blowing.

  6. Hey there, Hillary. I real most (time permitting) of Aaron’s stuff.

    Lets do a thought experiment: If I introduced legislation that would take $50M today from people who are hungry, sick, without sufficient access to water or school supplies (numbering in the hundreds of thousands), and gave it to 30,000 people 20 years from now, you’d be universally against it, I’d wager.

    And yes, doing good for the wrong reasons is still doing good. But Aaron, you have kids, you have to know that getting your kids to do the “right” thing for the wrong reasons isn’t any kind of way to get a predictible and repeatable outcome.

    I’m just not sure where the line is for your standard. Doing any little good, no matter how small, and no matter what the negative externalities, passes the bar? For me, its more utilitarian. How can we do the most good? This isn’t it, IMO. As to Hillary’s point, neither Polio nor cancer are/were extremely rare, but to the extent they were, yes, we should fund research into them, but not at the expense of diseases we are closer to curing that affect many, many more people.

    I think the root of the problem is demonstrated in your “so much negative out there right now” comment. Really? The world we live in is infinitely better today than it was 100 years ago, 50 years ago, even 20 years ago. Are there problems and are they big ones? Sure, but those same ones existed in the past and there are now less problems than there were in the past. The world is a far better place today than it was in our parents’ day. Don’t lose sight of that.
    Bryan recently posted..16,425My Profile

  7. Bryan: Your point holds no water because you’re talking about TAKING money from people versus people VOLUNTARILY donating money. It’s apples and fire hydrants.

    Also, donating to ALS isn’t “doing good for the wrong reasons.” It’s doing good for the right reasons — helping people suffering from a terrible disease. By your logic, only the “most worthy” (and who gets to judge that, by the way?) would get funding. Ludicrous.

    People donate to a cause they personally connect with, and that’s not a bad thing. It’s also not something that’s ever going to change. If someone donates to ALS instead of the American Heart Association (heart disease being the biggest health threat to people at the moment) you’re saying that’s wasteful and bad. But what if the person who donated did so because their spouse, brother, or friend has ALS? It is still worthy. It is still good. And it’s still money donated for the right reasons.

    Telling people who are doing a good thing they’re not doing a good enough thing, or not doing good the “right” way, is terrible. And counterproductive.
    Daddy Files recently posted..The 5 Stages of Spending Time Without KidsMy Profile

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