If you’ve been online in the past week or two, you have no doubt seen viral videos of strangers — and maybe even your friends — dumping buckets of ice over their heads. There is a charitable cause behind these videos. Most, or at least some, of the cold, soaked folks are accepting the challenge to support the ALS Association, a non-profit organization that provides support for research, assistance for people with Lou Gehrig’s Disease (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), and coordination of care, and the organization advocates for its cause through political lobbying.
Does dumping ice on your head have anything to do with curing a disease, and does it matter? I suppose the answer to both questions is no. There seem to be some disagreements about who started this latest craze. People have been dousing themselves with water to bring attention to causes for a while, but someone wishing to support the ALS Association caught onto this idea and it has certainly captured a lot of people’s attention.
And it’s working. According to the ALS Association, the organization has received $22.9 million in charitable donations between July 29 and August 19. For some context, that collection compares with just $1.9 million raised during the same time period last year, during which time no viral video was asking people to support the ALS Association. That is massively impressive. Good job, everyone who donated.
Still, more questions need to be asked. The ALS Association explains that the increase in donations come from both existing donors — those who have historically supported the organization — as well as 453,210 new donors. Presumably 453,210 persons or thereabouts were inspired by the video to do something they wouldn’t have otherwise done. And existing donors might have increased their normal contributions to be part of the frenzy.
How much of the $22.9 million has come from these 453,210 individuals? Are we looking at a case where a small group of major donors seized the opportunity to help the organization manifold, while your average ice bucket warrior kept their contributions slim? Does the organization even know what to do with $22.9 million?
Before I contribute to an organization, I like to know a little more about it, beyond the mission statement, beyond the marketing. The most important thing is whether the organization is a good charity, and that could mean many different things. Is the organization’s mission in line with something I’m passionate about and interested in? Are the executives taking care of the money they receive?
In the case of the ALS Association, the non-profit’s 11 executives earned $1.8 million in salary for the tax year ending January 2014. Another $950,000 was spent by the organization for marketing consultants. The organization raised a total of $23.6 million in funds that year, and only $363,000 of that was from government grants. During that year, only two individual donated more than $5,000 to the organization; one contributed $5.75 million and the other gave $500,000. While this doesn’t guarantee how people donated this year, it does seem like a good portion of contributions come from small donations like those that might result from a campaign like the ice bucket challenge. This is encouraging.
Here’s the organization’s explanation for the $5.75 million contribution:
In December 2013, the association received a bequest totaling $5,750,000, establishing a term endowment according to designations made by the donor. The proceeds of this bequest are to be maintained by the association in an endowment fund for a period of ten years. Earnings from the fund are restricted to support research and may be spent on a current basis.
The ALS Association’s total expenses in the last fiscal year wee $26.2 million, up from $25.7 million the prior year. These expenses include research grants, patient and community services, public and professional education, fundraising, and administration. Those administration expenses are 7.3% of the total. Charity Navigator, a company that rates non-profit organizations, comes up with a different result of 11% using the prior year’s financials, but considers that to be relatively efficient and provides the organization with an overall four-star rating.
The CEO received total compensation last year totaling $362,458. Is that the right price to pay for a non-profit CEO for a company with annual expenditures of more than $25 million? Maybe. Or maybe knowing the CEO is in a financial position those with ALS would like to find themselves in makes the idea of supporting the organization less tasteful. I do know that running a non-profit organization like the ALS Association is complex and difficult, yet an established organization certainly takes advantage of the willingness of people to support that organization — whether it’s smart people and consultants to advise the CEO or whether it’s the corps of thousands of volunteers who assist non-profit organization through some of the less sophisticated tasks of operating the programs.
Taking all things into consideration, the ALS Association seems to be on solid financial footing and is actively working towards its mission. The money raised by the organization has historically been distributed through grants from the ALS Association to groups doing the hands-on work in research in care, hospitals and universities. Judging by their financial disclosures, their IRS Form 990, and their reviews, you can feel confident giving to the organization.
There has certainly been some criticism in social media about the ice bucket challenge. Many challengers passed along the message by asking that the people they “nominate” either dump a bucket of ice water on their head or donate. This has stirred backlash — other people believe that people should donate regardless of whether they want to record and share a video of an impromptu ice shower. And there are always a good percentage of people who take the challenge, sharing videos with their friends on Facebook, without even mentioning ALS or otherwise identifying the purpose of the video.
But if the numbers can be believed, it’s working. It doesn’t even matter that some people are dumping water and maintaining the virality of the cause without donating or without mentioning ALS. In this case, it’s working, because the medium is so large, the message is getting through. Assuming the ALS Association is not behind this, and that it is a true grassroots campaign, this is a beautiful situation for the organization. Usually, you have to spend a lot of money on marketing to raise funds like this, and companies that handle the fundraising often take a significant piece of the revenue.
For example, hiring a company to handle telemarketing keeps some of the most important outreach work for an organization manageable, but a company that raises $133,000 might keep $111,000 for itself, leaving only $22,000 to the organization it’s working for. $22,000 is better than nothing, but it’s just a portion of the total raised.
In this case, I have to side with the supporters of the ALS ice bucket challenge, not the critics. In other cases, yes, acting foolish on social media in support of a cause, without even mentioning that cause, could backfire. People who have no concept of charity will naturally join in on the fun when they see their friends and strangers doing it. It reminds me of the planking meme from a few years ago. There was no organization to support, just a feeling of inclusion in a popular movement. Luckily for ALS, the penetration of the ice bucket challenge meme is so high that even if 60 percent of video participants have no idea about ALS and neglect to donate money, the benefit to the organization is still fantastic.
If you do choose to participate, you should focus on ALS and give to charity yourself, to the extent that it fits in with your budget, whether it’s $1, $5, $100, or more. Then again, if you don’t give, even if you don’t mention ALS, in this case you are likely still helping the organization. However, you could look at the recent figures and determine your $100 amid a haystack of $22.9 million in one month has diminishing returns for the organization this year, and might do better for an organization that receives much less public attention — at least this month. There are many ways to look at the situation to determine whether you should participate and donate.
Some of the other criticisms of the challenge don’t really stand up to scrutiny. Is it a waste of water? The amount of water needed for the challenge is negligible, but could be seen as a waste in areas where there is a drought. Is it a case of “slacktivism,” where people can feel good about “supporting” an organization without really doing anything? Maybe, but if so, just throwing money at a problem is the same thing — the real charity is donating time and effort. What I don’t like is that this is an indicator of how culture is changing from an externally-focused, doing-good model to a look-at-me-I’m-doing-good model. Celebrities are jumping in on the craze. I’ve even seen friends use the ice bucket videos to market their businesses or “personal brands.” The self-centered trend runs counter to altruism, empathy, and charity, so it’s interesting to see this combination of people drawing attention to themselves in addition to the disease.
Will you do take the ALS ice bucket challenge? Donate to the ALS Association here.
Published or updated August 20, 2014.