OPINION: Pouring cold water on a great idea

Despite raising more than $100 million, the Ice Bucket Challenge has attracted a curiously high level of criticism. Simon Burne disposes of a few unfounded objections.

It’s interesting to see the amount of heat that has been generated by the Ice Bucket Challenge. Much has been said, most of which casts the voluntary sector in rather a dim – or at least bickering – light: “they’ve nicked my idea”; “what are you going to spend all that money on without wasting it?”; “it’s dangerous”; “it fails to talk about the cause – it’s donor-centric”.

Let’s take a look at each of those issues in turn.

They’ve nicked my idea

The Independent and other papers reported that Macmillan Cancer Support has been criticised for “stealing” the idea by other charities – not least MNDA. Let’s take a cold-eyed view at this. Let’s be honest: all fundraising is theft. Every idea is usually a rehash of something that someone else has done before. Now, let’s not get into the ‘who saw it first’ debate, but which charity can honestly say that it hasn’t taken other people’s ideas and done them better or differently. Was Macmillan really the first charity to hold a coffee morning, or CRUK the first charity to hold a fun run? I don’t think so. They simply did it bigger and better.

Let’s be honest: all fundraising is theft. Every idea is usually a rehash of something that someone else has done before

Incidentally, nearly every fundraising innovation of the last 30 years has come from outside the sector: direct mail, telemarketing, door-to-door fundraising, challenge events, crowdfunding – the list is endless. All of those innovations have been shamelessly copied by charities as soon as their viability was proven. If anything, we’re guilty of over-copying, of milking the cash cow until she drops dead.

I understand that Macmillan set up a rapid reaction team to ensure they could quickly respond to trends after missing out on the #nomakeupselfie trend. Clearly that team worked. The lesson for MNDA and others is to do the same. If anything, it’s MNDA who should be criticised for being slow off the mark.

So be hounoured that your idea has been copied – after all it’s the sincerest form of flattery.

How are you going to spend all that money?

The Independent reported that charities in the US were battling for the rights to the ice bucket challenge. ALS tried to trademark the idea. Other charities challenged back to ask what ALS would spend the $100m on – 10 times their annual income. ALS backed off.

Don’t we all dream of having the problem of working out how to spend a load of unexpected money? Clearly, any charity facing a tenfold increase in annual income has a serious challenge; but I’m sure they’ll rise to that challenge. If they don’t that’s their problem and they could end up collapsing. That’s still no argument for not riding a wave when it happens – show me a fundraiser who wouldn’t ride that wave and I’ll show you a liar!

It’s dangerous

The Daily Telegraph reported that Cameron Lancaster, 18, drowned in a pool of water at a disused quarry after taking the challenge. This is tragic, but we need to remind ourselves that there are many fundraising activities that carry a degree of risk. There have been several cases of Marathon runners dying during their runs, but we haven’t sought to stop Marathon running. Skydiving, wing walking, trekking on the Inca Trail ­­– there are many potentially life-threatening challenges. In fact, there’s research that suggests that skydiving costs the NHS more in treating injuries than it actually raises for charity.

It also actually turns out that it wasn’t the ice bucket challenge that killed him, but jumping off an 80 foot cliff into a lake afterwards!

It fails to talk about the cause

William MacAskill ­­ – co-founder of Giving What We Can   ­– writing a blog entitled This week, let’s dump a few ice buckets to wipe out malaria too, said:

The ice bucket challenge is a symbol for much that’s wrong with contemporary charity: a celebration of good intentions without regard for good outcomes. It is iconic for what I call donor-focused philanthropy – making charitable giving about the giver, rather than about those who need help.

I’m not quite sure where to start on this. To suggest that ‘donor-focused philanthropy’ is a new phenomenon is extraordinary. The whole history of gala dinners, running back at least 100 years, is conspicuous philanthropy, at least as much ‘look at me’ as ‘look at the cause’. There have always been conspicuous philanthropists and at the other extreme anonymous donors who are motivated purely by the cause. To suggest that fundraising from the latter end of the spectrum is the only valid form of fundraising is just plain wrong.

MacAskill suggests that these sorts of fundraising activity fail to talk about the cause and are therefore somehow invalid. I for one had never heard of ALS before, despite having done work for MNDA in the past. So my awareness has been raised. While only a small proportion of the ice bucket challengers will go on to learn more about what is a terrible disease and continue supporting the charity, those are people who otherwise would not have done.

The ice bucket challenge, like #nomakeupselfie before it, and sitting in a bath of baked beans before that, is silly, pretty pointless and not much fun for the victim. But for whatever unpredictable reason it’s raised over $100m. We should be celebrating that and saying well done to everyone who ensured that it was such a tremendous fundraising success and asking “what’s next?”. Everything else is nothing more than sour grapes.

  • Simon Burne is director of fundraising and marketing at the Children’s Society and a member of Rogare’s advisory panel. He is also a former chair of the Institute of Fundraising.

One thought on “OPINION: Pouring cold water on a great idea”

  1. You know your fun run analogy doesn’t hold water. CR didn’t turn up at another charity’s fun run with CR sponsor forms and t-shirts, they set up their own. Macmillan didn’t set up their own viral social media thing. They would have had a right to part of a cancer effort, but not this. Not every charity (in fact not many charities) can dream of the resources they have for a rapid reaction team and they will make many enemies like this.

    Nevertheless I will wear my Macmillan poppy with pride in November.

    Editor’s note: The author of this comment has requested it be posted anonymously.

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