By Stephan Manning.
If somebody had told me earlier this year that the best way to raise money for research on a rare disease is to have people pour buckets of ice water over their heads I would have probably suggested ordering another martini – on the rocks! Today it seems that hardly anybody has not been nominated for the ALS ice bucket challenge or at least heard about it. In a nutshell, the idea is to challenge people to either donate $100 for research on ALS* or dump a bucket of ice water on their head within 24 hours, which would qualify them to nominate other people. Critics have called the campaign a substitute for charitable work; a distraction from other campaigns; and a waste of water. But nobody can deny that this campaign has generated over 1 Million Facebook videos since June 1 and more than 2.2 Million tweets since July 29, all of which have helped mobilize $41.8 Million from 739,000 donors for ALS research within the past month. So what’s the secret behind this campaign and do we need more (ice bucket) challenges to solve the world’s many problems?
There is no doubt: the amount of time, money and water people have spent to participate in this campaign is unreal. So what’s the secret? In fact, the idea to challenge people for a social cause is not new. In 1981, for example, Karl-Heinz Boehm, a famous Austrian film actor and activist, challenged the viewers of the popular German TV show ‘Wetten, dass…?’ (‘Wanna bet that…?’) by claiming that not even a third of them would be willing to donate as little as 1 Mark ($1) for starving people in Africa. With this clever bet he raised 1.2 Million Marks in total. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge seems not so different: it uses star power – Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Oprah Winfrey have all participated; it uses popular media channels; and it speaks to all of us – everybody can donate $1 or empty a bucket of water over their heads to help a cause. But there is a difference: The Ice Bucket Challenge has raised a much higher amount (even after accounting for inflation) within a shorter period of time for a much more specific cause – ALS – compared to ‘big issues’ such as hunger and poverty. So, what else is going on here and what can we learn from that?
Having fun without feeling bad. The Ice Bucket Challenge is fun. But could you equally imagine showering yourself with ice water to raise money for, say, improving access to clean water in Africa? Admittedly, this not-so-serious suggestion seems like a bad joke – even after five martinis on the rocks. (Or perhaps we would need to turn it into a water lifting challenge – see picture!) But how about doing some fun stuff to promote the development and distribution of cheaper drugs and medication to fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Typhus in developing countries. Seems odd? Is it appropriate ‘to have a blast’ while Thousands die every day due to lack of basic medication? Maybe not. But does that mean that fun campaigns only work for exotic causes? Why do we rely so heavily on social consciousness to support large-scale development efforts? Where is the fun in that? Does activism always need to be dead serious? Can we make Fairtrade, Greenpeace and Doctors without Borders more entertaining?
The selfie effect. Clearly, none of the many $1 donors in response to Karl-Heinz Boehm’s bet in 1981 stood out! It did not matter where donations came from. The sole purpose was to draw attention to people in Africa. The Ice Bucket Challenge, however, seems to have the opposite effect. Raising awareness for ALS – or whatever the cause is – seems to give people the freedom to express themselves in new ways and feel good about it. Whereas in the past only wealthy VIPs were able to leverage large donations to make an impression, now everybody can do the same with a bucket of ice water. Is that a bad thing? Not necessarily if only we knew how to utilize the basic human need for attention and recognition to address large-scale problems – poverty, environmental degradation, and protection of basic human rights. To tell a little ‘selfie story’, I remember in this regard my time as a volunteer in Nepal where I met entrepreneurs who gave me business cards with two ‘IDs’: their CEO info on the front, and their bio as Chairman of a local NGO on the back. Leading a community initiative went hand-in-hand with running a business. But is that a viable solution? Maybe some companies can adopt such symbolic incentives to encourage their employees to get socially active in support of the company’s own image. But not every person will feasibly and proudly run a social initiative on the side. Maybe there are more simple solutions: What if we had the opportunity to donate $1 for a social cause with every new selfie picture or video we post on Facebook!? How about that Mr. Zuckerberg?
The power of giving a choice. Another thing we can learn from this campaign is the effect of peer pressure. By nominating others I put them on the spot and generate excitement among mutual friends. However, this effect comes neither from pushing others to donate (nobody wants to be forced to be more socially responsible) nor from making others pour water over their heads (you need to give a good reason for that), but from giving peers a fun and challenging choice. It’s like ‘truth-or-dare’ or the ‘would-you-rather’ game. People enjoy the freedom to choose and the excitement of having limited choices. So how does that help us? Well, let’s think more radically here. How about a tax system that defines 10% of taxes as discretionary? Tax payers can either choose to pay in full and let the state decide how to allocate the money, or choose from particular social causes in need of funding. These will be jointly decided by the public (e.g. through petitions) and government bodies. Likewise, corporate social responsibility initiatives may benefit from giving employees, clients and suppliers choices about how and to what extent to support and participate in various social programs.
Overall, I feel that the Ice Bucket Challenge is more than just summer hype but could be the beginning of a new era. Supporting social causes will not anymore be motivated solely by social consciousness, a sense of duty and/or social pressure, but it will have to be fun, challenging and liberating in order to attract attention. This may seem daunting, but it may also offer new opportunities for businesses to get involved; for stars and media to participate; and for people to join social causes without getting overly emotionally involved. What do you think?
*ALS = Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis; Picture Taken From: http://www.pagusafrica.org/portfolio-view/clean-water
Stephan Manning is Associate Professor of Management at UMass Boston and co-editor of the Organizations and Social Change blog website.