Do We Need More (Ice Bucket) Challenges to Change the World?

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?

Lift water select

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:

Stephan Manning is Associate Professor of Management at UMass Boston and co-editor of the Organizations and Social Change blog website.


10 thoughts on “Do We Need More (Ice Bucket) Challenges to Change the World?

  1. The Ice Bucket challenge is still memorable today, three years after the original blog post. A campaign that generates so much media attention and generates so much money should only be commended, instead of receiving negative criticism. I also think it is important that celebrities backed this challenge as this helped to create awareness and used their status to do something good for society and educate, in particular, youngsters about ALS.

  2. Great article! I honestly think that Ice Bucket Challenge is a great idea. Not only because it is good for your body, but also by doing that people actually helped people with needs. The purpose of the challenge was to raise money and awareness for ALS. And if that a good thing, why people should stop doing that? I think it was a successful challenge, and the ALS Association raised awareness and got 4 $million, which is incredible!

  3. There is no doubt that this ice bucket challenges raises the awareness on ALS, I can’t say it is a bad idea to nominate our friends or coworker but in this case I disagree about the ice bucket challenges I think it is a bad idea, since this is totally wasting water. Why can’t people just donate money and why they have to waste water? Even though my friends nominated me in last summer I also rejected their challenge because I think donate money is a better decision. Do they know how much water did they all waste? Do they know people in the poor country don’t have water or they have to walk a long way to get clean water in order to survive. Why do they have to do this kind of “funny” ice bucket challenges in order to raises people attention?

  4. It is fashionable to whine about new thoughts, new ideas, or actions that do not fit our ways of thinking or mostly do not coalesce with our mind-sets, but I think a case can be made that any solely resistance to our opposite viewpoints does not automatically qualify us to the realm of right thinking. When I first hear about the Ice Bucket Challenge, the first thought I recall is the economics concept of scarce resource. How unethical is it to waste such a precious resource? That the attitude to be willing to inquire more and more to be more informed is what conscientious people do to acquire information. I do my homework. As a result, I have a mixed feeling and a change of heart on the initial thought about what this Ice Bucket Challenge is about.
    First and foremost, rather than criticizing vehemently the idea of this symbolic gesture of pouring a bucket of iced with water over one’s head for a noble cause to create awareness can be a teaching-learning moment. Imagine reducing child mortality and the spread of HIV in the world to be the next target by using the same tactics. The 1981 case of Karl-Heinz Boehm is an example of how valuable knowledge can be exploited and managed. Social media proves it with the hype around Lou Gehrig’s disease. But don’t get me wrong, it is a serious disease and I was not even aware of it. Was I the only one? Hell no! This act of caring and tending a hand is a heartfelt sign of compassion and moral responsibility as humans being.

    Indeed, either tacit and/or explicit knowledge can be transferred in the global organization, so do useful information and awareness in our village, communities, states and internationally to reach every single individual. Fourteen years later, the example Karl-Heinz Boehm is replicated and the dynamism of its outcome can’t be ignored. Imaging a similar ‘mediatization’ to fight famine in the world, children exploitation, and drugs addiction. Imagine a virtual global university launching a fight against illiteracy throughout the world with virtual classrooms (risen in the shadow of Khan Academy) using the same Ice Bucket Challenge to raise funds and create awareness about the rate of illiteracy in the world. Wait a minute! What about the number cause of mortality in the USA (coronary heart disease surely with obesity with underlying cause)? Can we beat obesity by creating the same awareness, going through the same motion, tactics, or strategies of the Ice Bucket Challenge? Yes we can! This is why a teaching-learning moment that is to be optimized. Aside the symbolism of the act itself, one is to note that we are predisposed to help or show our moral obligation towards others although we are the least moral species in the universe.

  5. Let’s talk about the “Ice Bucket Challenge”. Imagine that you have the option to donate $100 for the cause of giving water to those who live in extremely poverty and under really terrible high temperatures. Well, let me tell you something, If the second option is to put a Ice Bucket over me, because I did not wanted to donate, I would prefer to send that water to the people who need it, instead of wasting water, here and there, making videos to prove to others how resistant I am to ice cubes and also embarrassing myself in front of millions…

    Oh, and about the only two options, pretty much what I call looking at things “black and white”. Have you ever noticed that kind of pressure? It works everywhere! Well, yes, it does. Look, you go to the mall, and when arriving to the register, the cashier asks you “Do you what to donate a dollar for this, that, those, these…?” Well, this is how it works: Option A: you look behind you, proud, saying, “yes I want”. However, when you do not want to do it: Option B: you just give the back to the rest and with a tiny, little voice answer “not this time”. Well, these two scenarios are really coincidental, but in either there is the same irony… or do you know for sure that the money is going to the right place?

    By the way, donating money does not make a difference. The real difference is when you do it personally. During this “Ice Bucket Challenge”, I was in South America, so when I came back, and saw this, it was a shock for me. How on earth do you want to waste water, when some would do anything for have just half cup? And I must tell you that I have seen many people donating money and food. But in corrupted systems, instead of taking the donation and using it for real causes, SOME fundraisers take the money for their own good, or sell the donated food to those who need it the most.

    Do not take me wrong, I support donations, what I do not support is SOME insensible people trying to get some money by any means.

    So, great improvement for getting donations! Next time, instead of water, let’s use food, just to show how much we care!

  6. I also have mixed feelings about the ALS challenge. On one hand, I participated myself – having been challenged publicly on Facebook. Further, with a professional interest in nonprofit management, I always love to see a charity making the headlines – especially on positive grounds rather than the overemphasized issues of compensation or diversion.

    However, it does bring many of the nonprofit sector’s problems to the forefront. As has been mentioned, charitable donations rarely increase significantly as a percentage of GDP. Therefore, allocation of finite resources must become the topic of debate. Not only should the allocation among causes (eg. ALS vs. AIDS vs. homelessness vs. education) be questioned, but also the choice of organization. For instance, proceeds from the ALS challenge go to The ALS Association. The likelihood is low that many of the Challenge contributors bothered to look into the competitors to or the organizational impact of The ALS Association. So if there were another organization doing a better job of fighting ALS, these contributors would be unaware. For instance, The ALS Association has an overall rating of 90.73 (out of 100) on Charity Navigator whereas The ALS Therapy Development Institute has a rating of 97.31.

    To be clear, I am absolutely NOT advocating the merits of a 7-point spread or the methodology of Charity Navigator for that matter (in fact, I question both). What I am saying is that little rational thought was put into these contribution decisions. Instead they were motivated by peer pressure, convenience and awareness. I believe if we are going to offer individuals (rather than the government or foundations) responsibility for such decisions, we need to find a mechanism to ensure more accountability for their soundness.

  7. This is an interesting post. Personally and intellectually, I have very mixed feelings about the ice bucket challenge. As someone interested in social cause marketing, I am intrigued. Having a bit of fun is a tried and true, although at times controversial, social marketing technique. Combining it with social media networking in this way is very interesting and has certainly been widely successful. As someone who knows a number of people touched by Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), a horrible and essentially orphaned disease, I am amazed and pleased that so much money has been raised in so short a time. Further money spent on ALS may also help with other muscle wasting diseases such as Multiple sclerosis. And so I find all that heartening.

    All good right? Well sort of. Yes, there is the issue of wasting water and energy creating ice. And there have been concerns that this campaign is not actually causing people to donate more money but simply shifting where their donations will go. Of course the latter is a criticism that we can level at all social cause marketing campaigns. The most central issue that the ice bucket challenge raises, however, concerns how as a society we use our resources. Consider that we have politicians who cut funding for health research and yet are “doing the ice bucket challenge.” Although I have no problem with people donating to charity and in fact do it myself, I would argue that the most effective way to fund health research and provide for social needs (e.g., feeding the hungry, promote and build the structure for clean energy) is not through these sorts of campaigns but through government funding. If the United States took just half of its military budget and redirected it to health research and a Manhattan Project for Clean Energy, imagine what we could do? As of this writing (August 26, 2014), the Ice Bucket challenge has raised nearly 90 million US dollars. This is a huge amount but it is not that much when you compare it to the costs of getting one drug to market, typically in the billions, according to an article in Forbes (

  8. thanks for this post, Stephan. The ice bucket challenge reminds me of school fundraising where we bought rotten tomatoes and eggs to throw at teachers, the fun of humiliating them! Philanthropy is almost always harnessed to other motivations, not pure altruism, so I don’t think there is any inherent problem on that score. Of course, there is a certain arbitrary nature to why ALS has raised over $50 million from this, more money than they can usefully spend, while other important causes go wanting (and there is a strong argument that medical research should be government supported, not dependent on the whims of philanthropists).

    But can this be easily copied? could be a fad that dies out as quickly as hoolahoops. Today there are reports of an Indian rice bucket challenge to give buckets of rice to people in need. OK, so rice rhymes with ice, but where is the fun? The academic version could involve what we all fear more than an ice bucket over our heads, serving on a learning assessment committee. But a Facebook yawn on that one. Social media based philanthropy that relies on viral campaigns might generate occasional big hits, but it’s likely to be a ‘winner take all’ outcome, actually increasing inequality in allocation of resources.

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