Thinking Beyond the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

The ALS Association managed to raise over $100 million in the last month alone.  Where did the Ice Bucket Challenge come from? What does this viral phenomenon teach us about online fund-raising?  And how does it relate to authentic altruism?  

It seems a sure bet that any accurate retrospective of the year 2014 will contain at least one YouTube clip of a person enthusiastically dumping a bucket of ice water over their head.  This was, without a doubt, the summer of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

The fascinating thing is, the meme that we now know as the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge really didn’t start out as an ALS Association fund-raising promotion at all.


One could easily launch an examination of ALS’s fund-raising wunderkind by outlining the long and storied history of the Dunk Tank.  This archaic device was used to raise funds through the exchange of cash for three chances to knock someone (usually a local celebrity or an abusive clown) into a tank of cold water by hitting a target with a thrown ball.  But the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge really is an Internet sensation, so let’s limit our scope to the modern era.

ice-bucket-challenge-2Pinpointing the very first recorded “internet challenge” is a fool’s errand, as they have been a staple of online culture since at least the early days of YouTube.  People have been eating a spoonful of cinnamon, or chugging bottles of egg nog, or chewing habanero chili peppers (or otherwise challenging their friends to feats of stupidity) for quite some time.  One could even make an argument that ‘Jackass’, the amateur-daredevil MTV show from the early 2000s, is our Patient Zero for this current cycle of viral dares and challenges.

As well, when it comes to the comical application of cold water for a good cause, any good Canadian will immediately recognize the modern, viral spin on the Polar Bear Plunge.  This traditional winter event, where people chop a hole in the ice of a local pond or lake for a brief, freezing dip (typically to celebrate the New Year, and often in aid of the Special Olympics or some other charity) has been a staple of Canadian life since the mid-1920s.

The present-day viral version — what we might call the Internet-era Cold Water Challenge — began in early 2014 with people simply calling-out one another to make a YouTube video of their leap into a frigid body of water.  Certainly, the Polar Bear Plunge is not only textbook slapstick, but also a perfect launching pad for issuing icy challenges to your friends on Facebook.

In early March, a Winter 2014 Challenge was actively promoted by Kahnawake Mohawk Television in Quebec, Canada.  They claimed that the icy (or alternatively snowy) plunge was to “call out people” and “to promote being active in nature.”

It is always difficult to trace the early stages of a meme, and a Winter Challenge / Cold Water Challenge which employed a bucket of ice water is no different. The earliest video I can find dates back to March 4 of this year, and features a Calvary Assembly of God youth minister named Marc Smith getting doused with his wife Andrea.

It is unclear whether Marc and Andrea Smith were doing the Challenge for charitable reasons, but in early April, the fund-raising branch of the Assemblies of God seized upon the concept, and created the Speed the Light Cold Water Plunge, which helped raise funds to provide “essential transportation and creative communication equipment for missionary evangelism.”  Marc and Andrea Smith posted another video on August 5 to thank their supporters while departing for a missionary stint in Thailand, so perhaps there is a connection there.


By early May, a great many people were taking part in various Cold Water Challenges for the Wounded Warrior Project, Cancer, and The National Fallen Firefighters Association, among other charities.

It is worth mentioning that this year’s first death attributed to the current viral phenomenon — that of 16 year-old Davis Colley, who willingly jumped into an icy Minnesotan lake to raise money for a cancer charity — took place in early May.  Unfortunately, Colley’s death would not be the only one linked to this phenomenon.

According to my point-and-click research, the very first bona fide ALS Ice Bucket challenge took place on July 15th of this year, a full three months after the first wave of Cold Water Challenge videos were posted to YouTube.

Now, one can hardly fault the ALS Association for hopping on the bandwagon.  Charities and their advocates are always looking for new and creative ways to raise funds.  But a little bit of revisionist history is taking place when it comes to who is responsible for the development of the campaign, and the ALS Association actually started taking steps to trademark the phrase ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ before later backing away from the idea.

Who could blame them for wanting to own the concept?  The campaign is the perfect fund-generating meme for a selfie-obsessed culture with a short attention-span and a giddy penchant for slapstick.  It’s no wonder The Ice Bucket Challenge went viral — the videos are typically short, funny, and essentially cinematic selfies with no complicated narrative beyond the sudden and hilarious application of ice water to the head, and the subsequent calling-out of three friends to do the same.  It’s hard to be critical of such pure and simple genius.


It is also hard to be critical of the Ice Bucket Challenge because its supporters make no bones about pre-emptively attacking any of its would-be detractors.  Articles like ‘The Worst Part of the Ice Bucket Challenge is the People Criticizing it’, by Angelina Fanous on and ‘Think the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Is Stupid? You’re Wrong’ by Forbes staffer Matthew Herper are quick to label critics as wrongheaded, self-righteous ‘douche ex machinas’, existing only to ruin everything for everyone.

The worst part of the Ice Bucket Challenge is the people criticizing it?  Seriously?  There may or may not be a few problems with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, but someone who might make an effort to point out these problems would only be considered the “worst part” by someone who didn’t value free speech or honest critical enquiry.  It amazed me, for example, that Rebecca Watson over at Skepchick (where, one might suppose, skepticism might be given a fair hearing) chose to describe the vast majority of critical articles as people simply choosing to “shit on someone.”

In a fascinating way, it’s kind of like watching the embryonic formation of a cult.  There are those who have done the challenge, who are gung-ho for the cause and unwilling to see it criticized on any terms… and then there are the perceived adversaries – those sad, bitter people who probably have not done the challenge, and who are incipient disbelievers and fault-finders.  It really has become that crazily back-and-white.

Yes, the Internet is full of jerks and fun-spoilers.  Nobody would argue that.  But I also believe it is possible for someone to be critical without necessarily wanting to ruin everything for everyone.  I myself have a few concerns about the Ice Bucket Challenge, but I would be careful to preface my comments by pointing out that I don’t agree with much of the typical Internet disapproval I’ve read so far.

For example, I really don’t mind that the Ice Bucket Challenge uses a form of Charitable Coercion, since that’s what helped make it go viral.  I don’t care that it is technically Slacktivism, since there were actual tangible results (unlike the #SAVEOURGIRLS campaign for the 200+ Nigerian girls who were kidnapped, turned into a popular hashtag, and then essentially forgotten).  And I don’t care one whit about the Wasting Water argument, which seems to be fault-finding masquerading as environmental concern.

The difficulties I do have with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge are twofold, and both of them come down to a single word: Altruism.  Moreover, the problems I will try to delineate in the next section would seem to suggest that there are problems not only with this current cycle of fund-raising (because we can be certain that other charities will try to emulate it), but with how we look at being compassionate and charitable within ourselves.


In the early stages of the campaign, the rules posted on the ALS Association website made it clear that the challenge involved people “getting doused with buckets of ice water on video, posting that video to social media, then nominating others to do the same, all in an effort to raise ALS awareness. Those who refuse to take the challenge are asked to make a donation to the ALS charity of their choice.”

Notice the framing here?  If you don’t want to kick in some cash to help fight ALS, then you can dodge the social obligation by dumping ice-cold water on yourself.  This is a strangely counter-productive approach to take when it comes to fund-raising, and seems to suggest that being wet and cold (and posted on YouTube for all to see) is preferable to being altruistic.

Allow me to repeat this for emphasis.  In its beginnings, the campaign never suggested that people register with the ALS Association, or share information about the disease with their friends, or even show support by donating funds.  The social, funny and entertaining element of the Ice Bucket Challenge — the key element that caused it to go viral — was a direct result of the participants’ desire to avoid donating to charity at all.

Of course, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge evolved over time, and the rules developed and changed, so that — in the Challenge we know today — even those who brave the ice water are expected to donate.  But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that the original rules of the campaign made no attempt to appeal to our innate altruistic sense.  It seems unclear what role the Association played in the fund-raiser’s development, but knowing how it began makes it difficult to pat the leadership of the ALS Association on the back for holding a successful campaign.  The whole thing seems to have stumbled into success almost despite itself.  As a matter of fact, if you added or subtracted a few key clicks in the early days of the Cold Water Challenge, the ubiquitous fund-raiser we now know could very easily have been on behalf of the Wounded Warrior Project, The American Cancer Society, or The National Fallen Firefighters Association.

For the record, I am genuinely glad that it was successful.  I have no qualms whatsoever about the ALS Association benefiting from the way this campaign evolved and eventually exploded.  It is clear from the ALS Association’s ranking on Charity Navigator that it couldn’t have happened to a better non-profit.

I just think we could have done better.

As Jacob Davidson wrote in his article on, “In an age where hashtag activism and information-free awareness campaigns are becoming more and more common, we should be very conscious of how to make viral trends as useful as possible.”

In my view, it’s not that we needed to be more efficient about how the campaign was run, we needed to be more attentive to how the campaign represented altruism to our society’s children.

In monetary terms, the results of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge are fantastic, but do we want to raise a generation of children who are being shown that altruism means being more concerned with looking good or having fun rather than simply doing good?

Is it necessary for a fund-raising campaign to entertain us?  Of all the kids that took part in the Ice Bucket Challenge, do you think the majority of them spent the next few days visiting the ALS Association website for information and updates on the amounts donated… or checking out how many hits their YouTube video received?

Altruism is giving your time, energy, and/or money to aid in the betterment of others, even when (or, I would argue, especially when) the benefactor receives nothing tangible in return.  Altruism could be exemplified by jumping into an icy lake to rescue a drowning stranger, which may help explain why some old-fashioned people bristle at the thought of dumping ice water on yourself as being altruistic.  Especially when it’s filmed and posted on YouTube.


The other concern I have relates to what we might call The Lemming Principle.  For young people especially, the social pressure to appeal to the majority, or otherwise follow the crowd, is tremendous.  I would suggest that a fair number of people who have taken part in the Ice Bucket Challenge did so, not from any real charitable sense or an irresistible desire to be compassionate toward people with ALS, but to simply imitate and outdo their friends.

The response to this criticism is usually as follows:  “Who cares if the Ice Bucket Challenge is yet another minor erosion of individual expression?  Who cares if it doesn’t teach altruism?  The campaign still raised a ton of money!”

And as an ‘end justifies the means’ argument, yes, it is difficult to turn up one’s nose at $100+ million raised for a good cause.

But consider the following tidbit of information that Sam Stein pointed out in his recent Huffington Post article:  Almost 20 elected officials who accepted the Ice Bucket Challenge in supposed unity with victims of ALS had previously voted for legislation that would cut funding for ALS research.  This really is an amazing display of cognitive dissonance, and could only result from valuing appearances and “following the crowd” over, say, the development of compassion, or generosity, or thoughtful and consistent decision-making skills.

I mentioned earlier that the ALS Association has a pretty good ranking on Charity Navigator.  How many people, I wonder, bothered to check the legitimacy of the ALS Association before digging through the cupboard for the ice bucket?

I don’t claim to know the answer to this question, but it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that it was a fairly low percentage.  Once the campaign caught on, and especially when celebrities started taking part, it seemed to generate its own sense of legitimacy.  But do we want to teach our children that popularity plus celebrity endorsement equals legitimacy?  In other words, supporting collective bandwagon-jumping may not be a fantastic way to help young people form healthy moral agency.

But again, this begs the question: “Who cares?  It turns out that the ALS Association is a legitimate and worthy charity, so it all turned out fine in the end.”

Well, here’s the thing about that.  A considerable number of pro-life supporters are expressing ‘benefactor’s regret’ since the discovery that the ALS Association actively supports embryonic stem cell research studies.  Now, I am not taking sides here in terms of the morality of such research, I am simply pointing out that a considerable number of people were apparently active and enthusiastic in their support of an organization whose practices flew right in the face of their own personal, religious, or ethical beliefs.  Again, a fair degree of cognitive dissonance.

Of course, the ALS Association was perfectly up-front about their having supported such research, and their advocacy for embryonic stem cell research is fairly easy to find on their website, so there’s no arguing the fact that the onus here falls on the donor.  In fact, the ALS Association makes it clear that its patrons can freely choose to stipulate that their donation not be invested in embryonic stem cell research.  But how many Ice Bucket Challenge supporters were aware that they could make this stipulation?  Or that they needed to?  This is the Lemming Principle exemplified.  Do we want responsible, well-informed supporters for non-profit agencies, or are we satisfied with the quick accumulation of a lot of money?   How you answer that question depends on your worldview, I suppose, but I would suggest that encouraging such blind bandwagon-jumping is not the best way to instill responsibility and moral agency in the next generation of benefactors.

True altruism requires moral agency.  Making a simple assessment that a contribution is good, or worthy, due only to its popularity or social appeal, is not enough.    Being altruistic means doing what we ourselves believe is noble and moral.  Doing something blindly, possibly for reasons as selfish as our our own self-aggrandizement, that may in fact morally contradict our personal beliefs cannot truly be considered altruistic.

Encouraging people to see altruism in this new way — as ‘popcorn charity’ that is both spontaneous and fun, rooted in popularity and generating its own legitimacy — is accepting something less than the real thing.  This type of viral sensation may raise a lot of money, but only rarely does it seem to connect us emotionally with the people we are claiming to support.  And, in some cases, it may even disappoint the people who discover, in the end, that their time and effort went in aid of something that conflicted with their core beliefs.

Believe me, I would like to see our society work towards developing its young people into more informed, more pro-active and more effective supporters of the non-profit sector.  I would like to be able to look back in 10 years and see the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge as the first of many wildly-successful Internet-based charity fund-raisers.

But let’s not lose sight of the fact that altruism is supposed to be self-transcendent, not self-aggrandizing.  Let’s not forget that helping cultivate truly compassionate, wise and generous instincts in a young person is always preferred over celebrating blind bandwagon-jumping.  And that ultimately, doing good, and being generous, is meant to change the giver just as much as it changes the world.

Next time, let’s do better.

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