The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

August 25, 2014

In the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, someone asks you to donate $100 to the ALS Association, which works to finds treatments and a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis aka ALS aka Lou Gehrig’s disease. Donate, or you get a bucket of cold water dumped on you, and I’m pretty sure most people write a check and get wet!

What’s up with this? Why now? Before I try to address the questions, though, let’s all agree:  ALS is a dreadful condition, and those words don’t begin to describe its awfulness. Friends of mine have died from ALS, and I cannot imagine anything worse!

Everything started with Corey Griffin, a young Bain Capital go-getter with a friend, Peter Frates (a former Boston College basketball player), who has ALS. Together, they put forth the challenge to help rid us of ALS. (Sad news:  Corey Griffin drowned only days ago in a diving accident in Massachusetts. G-d bless him for his big heart and his evident talent, and may his memory be for a blessing!)

Now, with social media there are no guarantees, but there are waves, and they can be big ones! And this challenge thing has been one big wave. Latest figures I saw show $70,000,000 plus in donations, and there’s no evident end on the horizon.

Seventy million dollars is almost three times as much as the ALS Association’s total FY2014 revenue. It seems likely that the challenge sum will grow, and that most of the money is new money from new donors. And these assumptions are based on what? The Association’s Form 990, its tax return, shows about $1,000,000 being raised from a federated campaign, fundraising events, and government grants, and another $22,000,000+ from “other contributions, gifts, grants, and similar amounts not included above.” Thus, while it’s hard to know from where more than 95% of the money comes, it’s not likely coming from small donations. (As for existing donors continuing to give? Who knows.)

All good? Right? Well, maybe. The ALS Association appears to be a very transparent organization. No evident scandals. What does it mean, though, for an organization to have its budget increase three or four-fold (or more) in the course of a few weeks? Are there places where the money can be used for worthwhile purposes? The challenge did not begin because the Association or some other group in the ALS community said, “with $100m, we can find a cure.” Money can and will be spent, for sure, but more is not always better, either in the charitable or the scientific worlds, and a windfall does not always get spent well.

As it happens, I found an article in Fortune, A Different #icebucketchallenge: How Will the ALS Association Spend All That Money? by Claire Zillman, dated August 22. The article suggests an awareness of the challenges—no pun intended—and that the Association stands ready to address them, but it has no disclosed plan for spending the money. Only time will tell how well it goes, and no one should underestimate the difficulties attendant to a sudden influx of funds; that said, I was encouraged by the evident awareness of the situation.

Here’s my other concern. I really don’t think many people will reduce their giving to organizations X, Y, and Z, which they were already supporting, because they did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. On the other hand, there’s almost $100m, so far, going to one organization, and in some immeasurable way I imagine this sum of money reduces giving to X, Y, and Z.

We have many needs which get met in ways large and small by the charitable sector. Many nonprofits have time-tested programs. Others, often with track records, develop new, successful,  methodologies and approaches. And, from time to time, a new player enters with something great that meets a need. And, oh by the way, there are failures, too! Some are bad failures, where money gets wasted because there’s no real plan, no understanding of the needs, bad management, etc. Then there are good failures. Time, talent, and treasure get invested and outcomes are not what everyone hoped for, but the shared knowledge provides a platform for going forward.

In the end, we’ll have Ice Bucket Challenges and cause-driven efforts. They come, part and parcel, with social media and the lives we live today. I just hope we remember, as these opportunities for engagement-light come along, that solving societal ills—be they illnesses, products of poverty, or other ills—takes time, talent and treasure! The Ice Bucket Challenge has certainly “caught the wave,” but you’ll have to count me skeptical about its long-term impact.

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