Why I won’t be tipping cold water over my head

August 22, 2014 in Mark, Culture, Justice, Mission by Mark

Anyone who has been on social media in North America or Europe over the past few days cannot help but have seen the phenomenon that involves people filming themselves tipping ice-cold water over their heads, apparently to raise awareness and/or money for charity. Although the details vary, the first step is generally that someone is challenged by a friend, to either give $100 to charity, or to tip a bucket of ice-cold water over their head to be released from the obligation to donate (or in some cases to give a lesser amount). This person then challenges several more people, and the cycle continues…

While the idea has become hugely popular (as my Facebook and Twitter feeds testify), and apparently successful in terms of raising money (with this report suggesting $41 million has been raised for A.L.S. research up until August 21st), I have to say it makes me feel uncomfortable.

For one thing, the whole premise seems strange. You give $100, or you have a bucket of cold water tipped over you and give a lesser amount. It seems that the vast majority of people choose the latter option (or maybe that’s just my perception, since videos of people donating $100 to charity don’t tend to go viral on social media), preferring to get out of donating, or to donate a lesser amount, and end up cold and wet. But I have yet to understand what is so commendable about choosing to be doused in cold water in order to escape the social “obligation” of giving $100 to charity.

Isn’t the whole point of giving to charity to help others, to allow the money to be used to accomplish good in the world? Why are people being encouraged to put themselves through the inconvenience of a cold water soaking in order to give less money to charity?

Some might argue that $41 million raised speaks for itself, and that this money would not have been raised without millions of people being willing to film themselves getting wet. This may be true, but I would say it is a very strange society that raises such a huge amount of money to research a cure for A.L.S. as a result of people dumping water over their heads. Presumably A.L.S. has been around for many years, and research funding has been needed for a long time. Why are people now donating towards finding a cure, just because they have been challenged by a friend to tip cold water over their head?

If I was a fundraiser at the A.L.S. Assocation, I may be thrilled at the way the social media campaign has gone viral, but I think I would also feel discouraged to realise that as hard as I might have tried for years on end to raise awareness of what the charity is doing, who we are helping, how we are working with them, and the impact of donations on our work, the thing that has raised the most money has been people challenging each other to get wet in order to give less money to the charity.

Rather than focusing on celebrities dumping cold water over their heads, portraying their moment of madness as an act of self-sacrifice to make the world a better place, I would much rather that the focus on social media was on what the financial donations will achieve. What charities should we support? What are their values and principles? How do they relate to those they are serving? What are their accounting procedures like, and what impact are they having in their field? What can we do to raise awareness and promote understanding of the issues involved? These are the conversations that I wish were on Facebook and Twitter, although they don’t make for quite such entertaining videos as someone dumping cold water over their head.

As someone working for a charity, I am glad that we are supported by people who donate their hard-earned money because they believe in what we are doing. They know us, they value our work, they believe that what we are doing is effective, and they know that their financial contributions will make a tangible difference to the lives of others around the world. I am actually glad that our supporters don’t give to us because they were challenged to by their friends, and that our work isn’t promoted by people doing uncomfortable things in order to get out of a social obligation to support us. I’m grateful that our supporters donate financially because they want to, out of a spirit of kindness and generosity towards those who will benefit from their gifts.

My advice to anyone encouraged by a friend to take the ice bucket challenge would be to decide for yourself how much money you want to give to charity, and take some time to research what charity you want to support. Donate the amount that you want to, and do it because you believe in what the charity is doing and how they are doing it, and you want your money to make a difference. Make your donation intentional, and see it as part of a bigger picture, bringing about change in one small part of the world. Encourage your friends to do the same. By all means, tip cold water over your head if you think that is fun, but don’t fool yourself into thinking that your ice shower is an act of charity.

Maasai herdsmen at a water pumpAs a final thought, if you are lucky enough to live in a part of the world where clean water and refrigeration are abundant, you might want to consider donating to a charity that works with people for whom safe drinking water isn’t readily available.