Monday, September 01, 2014

The Nice Bucket Challenge

It should come as no surprise that people are criticising the Ice Bucket Challenge. Criticising is easy and about as much fun as pouring a bucket of ice over your head! Heck, I criticize everything all of the time. “Why are you even reading this blog post? Don’t you have more important things to do with your time? People are out there trying to cure cancer and you’re here goofing off online!” And in making other people feel bad, my brain releases a neurotransmitter, sweet dopamine, that makes me feel good about myself! (I have not read anything that says we get a dopamine surge from criticizing people, but let's just roll with it). Do people criticize the Ice Bucket Challenge to get their dopamine fix WITHOUT pouring ice water over themselves? Or are there some legitimate concerns about how we give our money?

It’s been called slacktivism. People are having lots of fun doing the Ice Bucket Challenge but, according to some, it’s doing far more to cater to people’s narcissism than it is doing to advance any cause. Harsh! Let’s talk about narcissism and charity for a second. There’s this old-fashioned idea that if you’re giving to charity you shouldn’t tell anyone about it. It’s such an old fashioned idea that Jesus said it! “When you give to the needy don’t let your right hand know what your left hand is doing.” There is some wisdom to that. There’s nothing more obnoxious than someone bragging about how much they do for charity. Of course drawing attention to a cause doesn’t have to mean you’re showing off either. Obviously there is a fine line between the two but it's obvious that in the age of social media, drawing attention to a cause is simply a great way to raise money for it. More money has been raised for ALS than has ever been raised in the past, humility be damned! So the question is, do you want to raise money for a cause, or do you want to be polishing your halo in private? Okay, that sounds kind of gross but … you get my point! The ends probably justify the means.

Of course this leads to the next criticism of the ice bucket challenge. “So few people suffer from ALS, why should we be raising money for them when so many people are dying from Heart Disease, Cancer, diabetes, starvation, drought etc….? Isn’t there a greater need elsewhere?” Doesn’t this sound like the same kind of argument people make when they complain about the space program?  “Why are we sending folks to the moon? There’s no oil up there or anything!” I don’t think science works like that. Sometimes working towards something like a cure for cancer helps scientist learn a bunch of stuff along the way. ALS is a disease where cells in the brain start to die off for reasons that are not completely understood yet. Don’t people think we’ll benefit from a better understanding of the brain? Won’t we be better off with the knowledge acquired by scientists who happen to write the word “ALS” somewhere on their grants? Think of all the scientists and hungry grad students(so hungry…) that money will fund in a world where research is heinously underfunded. You might be saying, “Well, what about Multiple Sclerosis? Far more people suffer from that disease than from ALS.” To you I say, “Please donate to charities that fund Multiple Sclerosis research.” Or whatever cause makes you feel good.

There have been claims made that people will actually give less to other charities if they do in fact decide to donate to ALS. You can almost see someone looking at their bank account, throwing their hands in the air and saying, “Well, looks like this year those orphans are plumb out of luck! ALS! WOOT!”  Are we over-estimating the effect of “funding cannibalism?” If this is an actual phenomenon, can we encourage people to give more generously or at least more carefully without turning a successful fundraiser into another reason to be cynical? People around the world have raised 100 million dollars to fund research toward one of the most horrible diseases on the planet. Good job people! What an accomplishment!

None of this is to say there aren’t some relevant points to be made about how we give (how much money and to whom). And I’m grateful to the critics who have opened the floor for discussion about charity. But let’s not harp on the negative without recognizing the positive. I love the idea that people can get turned on by compassion or motivated to do something compassionate if it’s attached to a fun meme. Let’s face it, at the end of the day, if we give to charity at all, we give to feel good and making a difference makes you feel good! (Sweet dopamine). Being goofy with your friends also makes you feel good! Can we give more intelligently? That’s a topic for discussion. Is ALS the best cause to give your money to? Well, I think that’s in the eye of the beholder. Just be generous and if your giving helps one person, or one million you’ve done something positive. And if you just like looking like an idiot on Facebook, that’s fine too. In a few weeks we’ll all be back to pictures of food, pets and selfies. No problem!  The best we can hope for is that the Ice Bucket Challenge will encourage us to be more generous in our day to day lives, even after this trend has melted into a cold puddle and evaporated.

Maybe it’s my imagination but the news has been utterly depressing these days. I’m not surprised at all that people have latched on so quickly to this fun, quirky little ritual.  Maybe you believe there are other charities that need more attention. Let your friends know about them. I've always been a bit of a cheerleader for bringing clean driniking water to developing countries and I'm far from the first person to see the irony in the fact that we have so much water to spare that we dump it over our heads for fun.

A few recommended charities.

Not to steal any thunder from those raising money for ALS. I’ll be donating to them as well.

One last point, there are probably a whole lot of people out there you don’t want to give your money to. Research your charities before giving your time and money supporting them. There are some nifty tools out there like Charity Navigator that will give you a rating for a lot of different charities, mainly based on how closely they meet their mission objectives.