Were you surprised to find yourself pouring a bucket of ice over your head this summer?
The ALS ice bucket challenge has gone viral, and as of today it’s raised over $40 million for ALS research. But like any social good trend, it’s also been the target of a number of critiques: that participants in the challenge aren’t actually researching ALS, that the challenge doesn’t have any post-summer staying power, and that it’s just a quick fix to a much larger issue—the challenge of gaining funding in medical research. The dialogue surrounding the challenge has been thoughtful and grounded on both sides of the issue.
The reality of the ice bucket challenge is that it’s a light, airy fundraising tactic that works great for the summer—and it’s been very effective. In some ways, the challenge is the envy of many nonprofit development departments; everyone is wondering how they can develop a similar tactic with the same potential to take off. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that the ice bucket challenge is a short-term tactic that hasn’t yet been built into a larger campaign. As Vice author Arielle Pardes points out, the challenge is likely to fade in the way of Kony 2012 and Bring Back Our Girls. But like the other viral trends, it will stay in our collective memory. (Next summer, you’ll probably hear someone say, “Remember that ice bucket challenge?)
But the reason the ice bucket challenge works is because anyone can do it and, for a few minutes, feel like they are engaged in a bigger movement. It’s instantly gratifying, offering validation that supporting a charitable cause is good through likes and comments. Shoot a two minute video, and voilà! You did something good today—and you can get your friends in on it as well.
And the truth is, we are all hungry for new ways to engage. More than ever, we seek ways to make a difference in a world that can sometimes make us feel disempowered. So I say we should embrace the ALS ice bucket challenge for what it is and let it be a motivator to become more socially aware, to continue to donate, and, most importantly, to stay involved long after the trend chills. Here are a few ways to cultivate a lifetime of do-gooding and engage in the causes that matter to you the most for the long haul.
Think Like an Investor
We participate in viral trends like the ice bucket challenge because it’s easy and doesn’t require a lot of commitment. But for your contribution to be truly effective, organizations you support in the long term should be like a stock portfolio, where your investment or impact can grow over time.
Before you do anything, do a bit of research on the organizations or projects that are interesting to you to learn more about their budget, programs, and operational expenses. Also look into how organizations determine their successes and how they admit failures. Does each organization align with your own values and goals, and are you willing to support it for a few months? A year? Until the initial trend has passed? Is your involvement going to be a long-term investment or a one-time support and “sell” (move on) kind of thing?
If you want to join when the cause is hot and then bail out, that’s fine—but be honest about your level of commitment and what you want to gain from the experience.
Recognize Your Impact
After any charity has a media scandal, you may have heard people say, “I’m not getting involved or donating to charity X because I don’t want to pay the CEO’s salary.” But unless you become a big ticket donor and allot your donation to specific programs or campaigns, it’s important to realize that organizations need money to run their operations and pay salaries.
And not to be the bearer of bad news, but organizations that allow you to “buy a cow” or “purchase bags of rice,” usually already have those resources allocated—and your donation actually helps cover the operational costs of delivering those goods and services.
But don’t be discouraged by that. Organizations can do the best work when they aren’t tied down to expectations. By giving your donation, you’re putting your faith in the organization that it will indeed do good—and sometimes you just have to trust in that.
That said, if you want to support something more specific, find organizations and causes that have a more targeted approach—you can find out by looking at annual reports, visiting Charity Navigator, and checking out articles on the Chronicle of Philanthropy to get the most robust view of the impact. (Definitely research beyond an organization’s website.)
Become a Social Good Brand Ambassador
It’s OK if you don’t want to dump a bucket of ice over your head or have the disposable income to donate to a cause. If we’re honest, having the time and the money to support causes can often seem like a luxury.
If that’s the case for you, there are other ways to support a cause that don’t involve money. You can post articles, stay up to date on the latest news, and engage in online activism through petitions or social media. You can also get involved in online organizing or create (and engage in) discussion groups about the issue. You can curate a Tumblr or blog about a cause you care about.
Sure, critics might be quick to call this “slacktivism,” but remember that not everyone’s support style is the same, and that’s OK. But keep in mind that the most powerful support comes from long-term investment. The colleagues I see who have the most impact are constantly tweeting and posting updates on the issues they care about, like corporate social responsibility, human trafficking, or education. Standing by the cause even when the trends fade can be one of the strongest sources of support.
Get on the Ground
Another great way to get involved is to volunteer, intern, or become a fellow with a specific cause. This can be a significant investment of your time, and it probably won’t be glamorous, but it’s a great way to get firsthand experience and provide support for an organization.
There are a number of great internships and fellowships that open up in the fall semester based in causes like global health, human rights, poverty, and education (for starters, check out Atlas Corps, Global Health Corps, and Princeton in Asia).
But you don’t have to go halfway around the world to gain experience or get on the ground. Sustainable, continued volunteering in your local community can go a long way, if you can make a commitment—being clear on how long you will support the cause (whether it’s something like tutoring once a week or a one-time cleanup), not skipping out on your scheduled support or date (because people are counting on you), and recruiting or mentoring others to take over your slot when you leave or move forward in the organization.
Go Beyond the Hashtag
Hashtags are great and deliver quick action in time of urgency, but they don’t always have staying power in a world that’s constantly updating its news feed. So how do you make your contribution last in a world where we’re always moving on to the next big thing?
In the article “Turn on, Retweet, Tune Out,” Lauren Wolfe examines why we have such short attention spans when it comes to social causes and the impact of that on the actual issues—and it turns out, it’s pretty detrimental. Long after the hashtags are gone, problems still abound. So instead of only capitalizing on a single, fleeting moment, we need to start building these moments into larger, sustainable campaigns.
So, with the ALS challenge, once I’ve dumped a bucket of ice on my head (and donated, of course), where can I go to learn more or participate further? Or with Bring Back Our Girls, how can supporters get further involved beyond social media?
As we saw with the Save Darfur Coalition campaign, supporters created a foundation that later turned into United to End Genocide, so even once the issue was out of the limelight, those who were involved in the initial campaign could continue their work.
But since Darfur is still not saved (check out what’s happening in Darfur and now South Sudan here), and kids are still abducted and forced to serve as child soldiers in Uganda and many other parts of the world, and millions of Syrians find themselves in refugee camps, we should press ourselves to look beyond the short-term campaigns and see the actual human cost on the ground. Hashtags and social media raise key awareness, but sometimes that isn't enough. On the ground, there are no beautiful graphics or interactive videos to engage with, people are struggling to survive. These issues are downright dire, and action should be taken beyond social media.
Ultimately, we should have the courage to engage with issues that are difficult and complex, where there is no clear end and no easy way out.
So, as an addition to pouring ice on your head for ALS this summer, I challenge you to pick a cause you care about, and invest your time, skills, money, presence, and voice for the long term. It won’t be easy, but the impact will be great.