18 August 2014

Thoughts on the Ice Bucket Challenge

ALS is a nasty disease. Two people I greatly admire — Stephen Hawking and Jason Becker — have lived with the disease for many years. To most, it's not so kind. Years ago I trained a group of young people whose job it was to care for a wealthy man in his 50s who had ALS. I once asked one of the nurses if she thought she could live with the disease, and she bluntly said, "I would rather die".

If you're not familiar with the heavily viral "Ice Bucket Challenge", the gist is that someone gets a bucket of ice water dumped over them, pledges to donate to help ALS research, and then 'tags' several friends to repeat the challenge. Given its focus on social networking and its novelty, it's been hugely successful in raising money for ALS research. That's a good thing, right?



Yes and no. Raising money to fund treatment for a nasty disease is certainly a good thing. But as William MacAskill – a researcher in moral philosophy at Cambridge – pointed out, there's a problem of 'funding cannibalism'. He notes,
Because people on average are limited in how much they’re willing to donate to good causes, if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities.
It's also worth noting that in most of the videos I've seen, no reference is made to whom a charitable donation is supposed to be given, and I'd be willing to be that plenty of people participated without making any donations just for the nebulous effect of "raising awareness". Raising awareness about ALS accomplishes little without action and, more importantly, long-term commitment.

I'm not in with the cynical crowd who asks, "What does dumping a bucket of ice water over your head have to do with ALS?", because the answer is, "About as much as running a 5k has to do with breast cancer." Lots of charities create novelty events to raise money, but as MacAskill argues, this isn't a good long-term solution:
[...] competitive fundraising ultimately destroys value for the social sector as a whole. We should not reward people for minor acts of altruism, when they could have done so much more, because doing so creates a culture where the correct response to the existence of preventable death and suffering is to give some pocket change.
[...] Rather than making a small donation to a charity you’ve barely heard of, you could make a commitment to find out which charities are most cost-effective, and to set up an ongoing commitment to those charities that you conclude do the most good with your donations. Or you could publicly pledge to give a proportion of your income.
These would be meaningful behavior changes: they would be structural changes to how you live your life; and you could express them as the first step towards making altruism part of your identity. No doubt that, if we ran such campaigns, the number of people who would do these actions would be smaller, but in the long term the total impact would be far larger.

For my part, I generally decline solicitations to give to charity as I already sponsor a charity I think is important, and my donations are budgeted out of my regular income. That's not to say I can't forgo a dinner out for a one-off donation to a good cause, but I generally dislike doing that for the same reason – my charitable donations are budgeted, so if I gave every time I was solicited it'd cut into my regular charity budget.

The Ice Bucket Challenge has raised over $10 million for ALS research, and that's a good thing, but we should all take a moment to consider longer-term commitments to causes we find meaningful.

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