Let’s just lay the facts out there. The Ice Bucket Challenge isn’t perfect, but it’s bringing a lot of attention and funds to a horrific disease, and it’s also bringing attention to the mechanics and structure of a viral fundraising campaign. As an overview, the Ice Bucket Challenge goes as follows: You’re nominated by a friend, usually via Facebook. The “challenge” is to record yourself dumping a bucket of ice water over your head and post it via social media, and if you don’t do it, you have to donate to the ALS Association. When I originally saw this on Instagram several months ago, it was called the Cold Water Challenge and you could donate to any charity.  Most people, at this point, are dumping the water, posting the video, and also donating. Within your video, you nominate three friends, and you tag them in your Facebook post when you post the video. Thus, it spreads.

The ALSA has raised nearly $90 million since the beginning of the challenge. Comparatively, in the same time frame last year, they’d raised $2.6 million. In all of 2013, they raised $19 million. They’ve gained 1.9 million new donors this summer alone. I wasn’t very educated about ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s Disease, but because of the challenge popping up all over my feeds, I’ve learned that it’s “a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord” and can eventually lead to total paralysis. I’ve also heard several heartbreaking first hand accounts from friends who’ve had a loved one who suffered from ALS.

The major criticism I’ve heard about the challenge is that it’s a waste of water, which we absolutely take for granted in the developed world. Some areas of the US are in extreme drought right now – some areas of the world have annual droughts which have a domino effect on the health of communities in those regions. I’ve seen arguments that we should care about causes without being challenged, and that the nature of giving a donation as a sort of “punishment” for not taking the challenge puts the wrong spin on personal philanthropy. Some have also argued that it’s another instance of “slacktivism” or “clicktivism” – where you don’t do very much for the cause itself, but you feel like you have based on your online/social media activity.

As with most all things in life, a pro/con list will be a super awesome tool for analyzing the challenge and whether it’s all it’s cracked up to be.


  • People are caring about giving and philanthropy: That’s awesome – I think most agree that a more committed and philanthropic public is great.
  • This is an incredible boon to the ALSA: I know what it’s like to be on staff at a nonprofit when a sudden windfall comes in. It’s incredible, and makes the possibility of achieving your mission feel like its right at the tip of your fingertips. Imagine that with these funding dollars, we find better treatment or even a cure for this disease? I won’t delude anyone – many of those new donors will unsubscribe in the future, and probably the near future, but with smart communications, the organization will be able to hold onto a percentage of them.
  • Real dollars are being donated: The main criticism of “slacktivism” is that it only raises awareness, which doesn’t make real progress. Think about things like changing your profile picture on Facebook to raise awareness about breast cancer. This craze steps it up a notch by involving a dollar donation, which firmly pulls it out of the “slacktivism” category.


  • It’s a waste of clean, potable water: Yup. Some clever folk have circumvented this criticism; Neil Gaiman did his Ice Bucket Challenge video with ocean water. However, I learned today that it takes about 700 gallons of water to make one cotton t-shirt, of the likes that you’d find at a store like H+M. This Vox article details how much water goes into raising and growing the food we eat – did you know that producing one pound of ground beef requires 1,845 gallons of water? Do you know how much water is wasted with every flush of a toilet or every shower you take – and have you installed a low flush toilet, or are you sure to save the gray water from your shower to water your garden? After learning these facts, I’m far less concerned with the waste of water in the name of a donation challenge.
  • It’s annoying: It can get a little annoying to see 10 videos of people dumping water over their heads when you’re scrolling through Facebook. But, welcome to social media. Trends get annoying, that’s just how it goes.
  • It’s narcissistic: Again, welcome to social media. The focus of social media is the user. The focus of your social media marketing efforts should be THE USER. Showing yourself off doing a wacky thing – no, we’ve certainly never seen THAT on the internet before.
  • It’s too focused on a disease that doesn’t affect that many people: Look, you’re not going to be struck down with lightning if you choose to give somewhere else. While the ALSA has certainly been the main benefactor of the trend, you’re free to forge your own path. If you’re particularly concerned about providing clean water and hygiene and sanitation solutions around the world, feel free to check out Action Against Hunger USA. I worked there for over three years, and I can attest to the incredible work they do for communities in need. If another cause is close to your heart, challenge your friends to step it up for an organization working on that cause. The philanthropic world is your oyster, my friends.

Despite facing a few challenges, the Ice Bucket Challenge has introduced good ideas into the world of fundraising and personal giving. It’s important to remember that nothing is perfect, and one of the challenges of fundraising and philanthropy that we’ll never overcome is pleasing everybody. Some people hate the little return address labels that come with direct mail and vow never to give to organizations that send them, because that org is clearly wasting precious donation dollars. But orgs send them because overall, they work. The Ice Bucket challenge isn’t perfect by a long shot, but no one can argue that it’s been incredibly effective.

I hope other organizations are inspired and come up with their own creative campaigns to spur personal fundraising, though I also think it’s worth nothing that the ALSA didn’t come up with this challenge. It rose organically among a connected population, like so many great fundraisers do. So get inspired, nonprofit folks! This one’s going to be tough to beat.