Ice Buckets, Charity and Awareness Overload

Ice Buckets, Charity and Awareness Overload

You can’t have missed the viral wave of Ice Bucket videos doing the rounds right now. They’re to raise awareness and funds for ALS, both of which are laudable, but they also point to how easily we’re overloaded with charity fatigue.

A wide range of celebrities are enhancing their celebrity right now by dumping buckets of ice water over their heads, all in the name of charity. Look, here’s The Rock:

John Barrowman:

Bill Gates:

Vince McMahon:

Dr Dre:

Tim Cook:

Tom Hiddleston:

Why do I say they’re enhancing their celebrity? Because they pretty clearly are, albeit in the name of a very worthwhile cause. $100 to a tech billionaire or movie star is essentially nothing, and the pressure here is more or less just a peer pressure issue, not one of actual fiscal necessity. I’ll give Tom Hiddleston a break there, because he does use his video to actually invite people to donate along with him.

I do feel compelled to point out that in Australia it isn’t called ALS (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis), or even Lou Gehrig’s disease, officially. In Australia, it’s known as motor neurone disease, or MND, so if you were thinking of going online and icing up, you should be calling out MND and making a donation here.

It’s also worth noting that Motor Neurone Disease Australia is holding an Ice Bucket Challenge event at Melbourne’s Etihad Stadium, this Friday at 5:30pm. You can find the full details for that here. Given the recent Australian weather compared to the US summer, I’d say any Aussie taking part is actually undergoing far more hardship than their American counterparts as well.

It’s undeniably great that large sums of money — to date, apparently more than $US3 million has been raised by folks with buckets of ice water — are being donated to charity. That’s never a bad thing.

It has been interesting to watch the viral spread of the ice bucket challenge across the net, along with a rising wave of backlash, because nothing loses currency quicker than an Internet stunt. I also wonder what it says about charity fatigue, because it’s becoming increasingly necessary to perform ever more ludicrous activities just in order to get our attention.

Think, for example, of the image of a starving child — simultaneously heartbreaking and at the same time an absolute cliché of fundraising for famine relief efforts. We’ve all seen it a million times before, and after a while our brains start switching it off, or switching the channel or web page.

This phenomenon is even recognised under the umbrella term secondary traumatic stress — which used to be associated with those who work in areas of extreme trauma, but is also an issue for any charity to overcome because we’re constantly awash with images extolling us to donate.

This is a real problem. A 2012 survey suggested that 60 per cent of Australians were tired of being asked for donations. We’re a relatively wealthy country, but we’re apparently tied to just a few causes, if we can be bothered to give at all.

Dumping a bucket of ice water over your head for both fundraising and awareness raising isn’t a particularly onerous kind of thing, even in cold weather, and it’s probably more enticing to the general public than images of disease or deprivation. I do wonder what it says about all of us, myself included, that it’s necessary in the first place.