I’ve been following the journey of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge with keen interest over the past few weeks. As a marketing professional in the Not for Profit sector, a fundraising action like the challenge is a marketer’s dream. In what seems like a relatively easy & replicable action to take, ALS is raising awareness and funds for this incredibly debilitating and life stealing disease. But as I’ve sat and watched celebrity after celebrity pour ice over their heads and often forget to even mention ALS in their videos, I started to wonder at what cost such a challenge comes, and how we should appropriately respond. Isn’t it a bit ironic that we’re encouraging people to do a five second challenge INSTEAD of donating to charity? Or, if people are donating as well (and it appears they are, with reports of ALS raising almost $80million USD through the challenge), is this once off act of public altruism enough?
When I was nominated yesterday by a former colleague to do the challenge at first I felt a bit frustrated. I’d been sitting here watching the phenomenon unravel and from my high horse, judging each person for their lack of interest in actually engaging with ALS and donating to the cause, and now I had to jump on the bandwagon or face looking like a cold-hearted scrooge. When I actually thought about it a bit further though, I realised there was 3 approaches I could take:
1. Respond to the challenge by pouring a bucket of ice over my head and chucking $100 in ALS’ direction
2. Ignoring the challenge completely
3. Respond to the challenge but USE it as a way to think about generosity as an identity and challenge you to think about it too.
As you might have guessed, I decided to take the THIRD option, because I think it’s about time we really spoke about this and the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge gives us a great opportunity to do so…. So let’s chat!
I think my main issue with the Challenge was seeing a whole bunch of people experience mild discomfort to simply raise awareness of A) the cause and B) themselves as a “good” person. If I’ve learnt anything from my work with not for profits over the last few years, it’s that awareness isn’t enough, it really needs to go a few steps further. So how can altruism truly become your identity, and do you really need Facebook to show that it has?
I’ve discovered that there seems to be 4 key steps to embracing generosity as part of your identity:
1. It starts with Awareness
2. It continues with an Understanding
3. It grows with Action
4. It lasts with Commitment
But what does this actually mean?
If the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has done anything, it’s raised a stack load of awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (yes, this is what ALS actually stands for!) It’s a progressive neurodegenerative disease that has very low survival rates once diagnosed and its origin is still unknown. You can read more about it here. Whether its ALS or extreme poverty –awareness is the starting point for engaging with an issue. This is actually how I’ve ended up where I am today! My first interaction with the eradication of extreme poverty, which is the cause I personally feel most drawn to, all began through my involvement with the Oaktree Foundation’s Make Poverty History Roadtrip – an awareness building exercise, aiming to inform the participants & the public about our ability to end extreme poverty in our lifetime. That’s HUGE and something I’d never really considered before. It’s not something that’s painted across billboards or broadcasted on the morning news bulletin but it’s something that people need to be aware of. Just like ALS. I’d never even comprehended a disease like ALS existing before the Ice Bucket Challenge. So for that reason, I applaud the videos clogging up your newsfeed, but it doesn’t end there.
Whilst it seems that ALS is now a disease known by millions of people worldwide thanks to the Challenge, I wonder how many people actually understand the disease and what it means to those suffering from its tight grip on their lives. You might have seen this video of ALS patient Anthony – he shows a pretty harrowing side of what ALS really means to its sufferers, but what he has really helped people to do is understand the issue and empathise with it. Before Anthony, the only people I thought of when I heard the words ALS were Jimmy Fallon, Oprah Winfrey and the Beckhams, yet Anthony actually gave a face and a story to help us understand ALS. And I think this is what truly takes altruism to the next level… actually taking the time to understand an issue and why you might donate $100 to the cause. Whatever the cause is that pulls on your heartstrings, start to UNDERSTAND what the issue actually is, who it affects and why it’s important that you respond. One of my favourite Brooke Fraser songs, Albertine, says “now that I have seen, I am responsible” and I truly believe this. Now that you’re aware of ALS, do you feel responsible?
Perhaps throwing a bucket of ice over your head is the first action you’ve ever taken for a charity, and I don’t want to discourage that at all. In fact, congratulations, I’m glad you’ve taken the time to do something, but again, it doesn’t stop here. Action isn’t 15 seconds of discomfort, it’s about doing something that potentially will make you uncomfortable all the time. My friends Matt & Britt live in Nepal and they wrote an excellent blog about this last week that you can check out here, but ultimately being generous and taking action mightn’t be the most natural or comfortable thing for you, but that is entirely the point. Giving so that we simply feel good & can show others that, isn’t what generosity is about, it’s really about giving to those in need joyfully and selflessly. This is a huge challenge and one I don’t believe I’ve fully grasped yet either but I encourage you to think about it this week. Now you’ve taken the action of donating to ALS, how can you take it a step further? Can you become a regular donor, or consider another charity which may benefit from your willingness to feel uncomfortable?
I guess the final issue I had with the Challenge was that it lasted 15 seconds and just like that it’s done. You feel good about yourself and ALS raises some money for 2014. But what will ALS do beyond 2014… what will YOU do beyond your 15 seconds of pain? I think to truly embrace generosity you need to make being generous a life-long commitment. If you’ve done the Ice Bucket Challenge, what will you do tomorrow, next week or next year that enables you to raise awareness, understand and ACT on an issue that is important to you? I think the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has given charities a unique opportunity to encourage awareness building and fundraising, but where we’ve really missed the boat is encouraging a commitment from the Challenge’s participants. Maybe you’ll give to ALS today and not tomorrow, that’s okay. But is there something you could commit to for the rest of your life that will make you occasionally uncomfortable, may begin unnaturally but is definitely calling for your attention?
A friend sent me this article about the dangers of the Challenge, suggesting that one small altruistic act can often lead a person to selfish acts in the future, but we don’t have to let the challenge go this way:
“If in donating to charity you don’t conceive of it as “doing your bit” but instead as taking one small step towards making altruism a part of your identity, then one good deed really will beget another. This means that we should tie new altruistic commitments to serious, long-lasting behavior change.”
I’m doing the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge to encourage you to begin a life where you embrace generosity as your identity. It may start with awareness, understanding and a quick action, but please don’t let it stop there.
I’ve donated $50 to MND Australia (the ALS Australian counterpart) & $50 to Baptist World Aid Australia – as poverty alleviation is a cause that is super close to my heart, and one I’ll keep fighting for, for the rest of my life!
I took this challenge in partnership with my bible study tonight, who will be donating to various causes that are close to their heart as we explore the topic of “generosity” this week. Huge shout out to my beautiful friend Ellen (donating to Amnesty International) for joining me in the freezing cold rain – your selflessness & huge heart for others inspires me daily 🙂
How will you embrace generosity today?
P.S If you’re looking for a really easy & worthwhile place to start, my friend Matt (who I mentioned above) has a way for you to be a part of the end of sex trafficking of girls in Nepal. Find out how you can get involved here.