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Is the #IceBucketChallenge a form of Slacktivism?

So if you’ve been on social media in the last week, I’m sure you’ve seen video after video of people pouring buckets of ice cold water on themselves. Why in the world would people ever willingly do this?!

Well, the Ice Bucket Challenge started when Pete Fratesm, a 29-year-old Massachusetts resident diagnosed with ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease - the neurodegenerative disease that attacks nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord - starting posting about it on social media.

So we’re seeing all of these people making themselves really cold and then sharing it on social media—but is it really doing anything for ALS?

Some people, will say no, you’re not really helping – isn’t this just another form of slacktivism? And instead of donating $10 to ALS directly, people are spending the money on ice and a bucket, and creating a Facebook post about ALS.

While this approach generates immediate and heightened awareness, it lacks any actual donations and long-term impact…right?

Well, let’s dig a little deeper. There are many examples of so-called “slacktivism” in the past—one being Kony 2012. This short film produced by Invisible Children focused on Joseph Kony, the notorious Ugandan warlord whose Lord’s Resistance Army is responsible for countless horrific abuses, including the kidnapping and recruitment of child soldiers.

Unfortunately by the end of the video, the theory of change was lost on many. Viewers felt they could contribute to the cause by simply sharing the video. But was sharing enough? The call-to-action felt too simplistic given the enormous weight of the subject. Even though the campaign had widespread appeal, some say it failed in leading to tangible change.

Will the #IceBucketChallenge suffer from this same fate? 

Well, you could start by looking at arguably the most important question: Has the Ice Bucket Challenge helped raise more money for ALS?

All signs point to YES. Last year from July 29 to August 14, $32,000 was donated to the ALS Association. This year, $5.5 million has been donated in that same time period. To be clear - that’s more than 1000% increase in total donations!

But can this be fully credited to the Ice Bucket Challenge? For the most part, yes. The ALS Association has received many designated donations from the Ice Bucket Challenge.

It’s true, not everyone who participates in the Ice Bucket Challenge makes a donation. But here’s the kicker - everyone that does participate, increases awareness of the disease and passes it along to others – folks who may be more inclined to actually make a donation.

However, everything’s not cut and dry (certainly not dry). Like the old-fashioned game of phone, some things are being lost in translation. As the Ice Bucket Challenge continues to spread virally across the Internet, the call-to-action (to donate) evolves as well depending on the message sender a.k.a. the person dumping freezing water on their head.

Before taking the leap, some people say “Complete the challenge or donate $100 to ALS” while others say “Complete the challenge and donate $10 to ALS.” Depending on how you phrase it, the challenge can either invite participants to become donors or to simply pass the buck.

But it’s the combination and the flexibility of the ask that seems to have fueled more energy behind the latest Internet obsession. And they are all putting their own spin on it - for example, Justin Timberlake participated and donated, but while President Obama didn’t pour a bucket of ice water over his head (not too shocking), he did vouch that he would make a donation.





EVERYONE is getting in on the act – celebrities, students, politicians, parents, grandparents and oh yeah, me too (thanks to my brother’s girlfriend for the challenge!) and the list goes on and on and on.


BTW - do yourself a favor and check out the amazing Ethel Kennedy take the Challenge if you haven’t already. And for a really touching moment, watch this video of a father with ALS and his daughter doing the challenge.

It's easy to see why these videos are so addictive. Where the Kony 2012 campaign painted with broad strokes, the Ice Bucket Challenge’s approach is to keep it simple. And while the campaigns are very different in nature, there is still much to learn (and debate) when comparing the two.

But here’s what the Ice Bucket Challenge is doing right – and what more nonprofits can learn:

1)    Audience is key. If only people who have the funds or desire to donate were seeing this video, it wouldn’t be nearly as engaging. Your message needs to get spread to the right audience that will be able to help you achieve your goal.

2)    Everybody likes a challenge. Yes, even when donating to fight for a cause. The idea of the Ice Bucket Challenge is a smart one because it has a competitive nature, and brings in the element of humor, while also raising awareness and money for a very serious disease.

3)    Make your call-to-action vivid and memorable. Sure, the Ice Bucket Challenge could have clarified the rules and perhaps the campaign’s goals a bit more, (what’s more important – overall participation or increasing the number of donors?) but these variations also help add personality and a unique quality to each and every #IceBucketChallenge video out there. But one thing’s for certain – you won’t forget these videos any time soon! 

So what do you think - is there an ice bucket in your future?


Topics: Advocacy Fundraising