With the advent of social media, things that were once localized efforts can become a national event in a hurry. This is especially true when good deeds or charitable works come into play, such as the #biebsmeetaly campaign I wrote about several years ago. People all over the globe rallied so that one 19-year-old cancer victim from McFarland, Wisconsin could meet the Biebs.
With the need to write more and more frequently, columnists often run out of ideas upon which they can speak coherently and authoritatively. In most of those cases, columnists who run out of ideas usually like to “zig” while everyone else “zags.” This leads to the “I’m not saying… but I’m just saying…” columns that put these writers on the less-popular side of everything from police brutality to women are too pretty to get tattoos.
When these two things intersect, you get columns like Michael Hiltzik’s look at the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.
Dumb, meet ass.
Hiltzik argues that not only is the challenge a bad idea, because it invariably brings attention to people who DIDN’T donate money to help combat this degenerative illness, but the illness isn’t really worth as much as other fine devastating illnesses.
Let’s stipulate that ALS is a devastating condition for those who have it. It’s almost invariably fatal, with most victims living two to five years after symptoms first appear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Researchers are still struggling to understand it.
But ALS is also a rare disease, which is defined by the federal Rare Diseases Act of 2002 as one affecting fewer than 200,000 patients nationwide. The CDC estimates the prevalence of ALS in the U.S. at any one time at about 12,000 persons. The ALS Association says 30,000, but hasn’t responded to my inquiry about the discrepancy.
First, glad you’re on board with the whole “this disease is bad” thing. I’m sure the people suffering with ALS are glad they have your blessing for the “devastating” nature of their condition.
Second and more importantly, look at your own math. If people live only two to five years after discovering they have ALS, it’s no wonder it’s a “rare” disease. You can’t live long enough to keep building that “base” of sufferers to help push that number up to something you find more socially acceptable and worthy of your support.
And then Hiltzik’s band played on…
Stunt philanthropy like the ice bucket challenge doesn’t accommodate such distinctions and comparisons–it just feeds whatever charity hits on a catchy device and treats all causes as essentially equivalent, distinguished only by their momentary claim on public attention. The result is that “the most successful charities will be those that are best at soliciting funds, not those that are best at making the world a better place,” as the British philanthropic organizer William MacAskill puts it.
This is called “marketing” and it’s something that all organizations do. Public relations practitioners, advertising executives and marketing organizations all seek to distinguish their causes, products and organizations from all the others. When they manage to hit on a “catchy device” that does this, it’s called being successful. Even more, despite your best attempt to make your point sound noble by quoting a British philanthropic organizer, his hating on the ice-bucket challenge isn’t purely altruistic either.
His group, “Giving What We Can,” is a group seeking donations (despite their “we don’t want your money” claim) that it will then donate to the “most effective charities” in hopes of doing some good. I’m not going to bash his group, but I will say when a Ford sales guy starts knocking a Chevy, I’m a little more suspicious of his motives.
One concern of philanthropy experts is that high-profile fundraising campaigns like this might cannibalize other donations–those inclined to donate $100 to charity this summer, or this year, will judge that they’ve met their social obligations by spending the money on ALS. (See this piece by MacAskill for an explanation.)
The only expert he quotes is the aforementioned MacAskill, who we’ve dealt with already. Even more, this only argues about those INCLINED to donate as opposed to others who might NOT have been inclined to donate. Sure, if my charitable giving is limited, I’m only giving X dollars to one group and whoever gets it wins. First, that’s where this whole “marketing” thing comes in. Second, many more people don’t give than do give when it comes to charity. Thus, if they’re getting stoked to pony up, that’s additional cash. The cannibalism argument could be made about anything. If I buy Diet Coke, I’m not buying Diet Pepsi. If I take my kid to the Brewers game, I’m not taking her to the zoo. If I serve on the board of one group, I don’t serve on the board of another group. Calling it “cannibalism” sounds a lot scarier than “making choices.”
So, sure. You want to contribute to the fight against ALS, great. But if you’re doing it just because you saw or heard about Bill Gates, Jimmy Fallon, Justin Timberlake or Ethel Kennedy dumping ice water on their head, maybe you should give a bit more thought to where you donate your money.
OK, thanks, Dad.
“You can do whatever you want do, BUT…” Could we be a little more patronizing?
Newsflash for Mr. Hiltzik: Despite your job at the L.A. Times and a wonderful mustache that just screams “I am obviously an authority on everything,” you don’t get to pick and choose what people think is important for the moment. If people want to donate or not donate, that’s their choice, regardless of how they decided to get there. Calling people out for not choosing what you deem to be the most “noble” of causes just smacks of arrogance. It’s also a great way to freeze altruism by making people question themselves for no good reason.
Donate to help feed kids in Africa? Don’t do that! We have hungry kids here!
Donate to cancer research? Don’t do that! AIDS is a deadlier disease with no cure!
Donate to an animal rescue operation? Don’t do that! We have homeless kids all over the place! Why should animals be treated better than humans?
This can become exhausting and most people will just say, “To hell with it” and go back to watching Dr. Phil.
So here’s the deal: I’m calling you out.
I challenge you to admit you were an overstepping blowhard, who just had some space to fill on the Internet. I challenge you to at least acknowledge that this was not your finest journalism hour and that in the future, if you don’t have something worth saying, you’ll write a story about a dog named “Pooch” that barks at trees or something. Say you’ll do ANYTHING instead of doing the “anti-trend” bit that makes you sound like a grumpy bastard yelling at kids to get off his lawn.
If you do this within 48 hours (double the ice-bucket challenge time), I will go all ice-bucket for whatever charity you want. Pick the most noble and worthy thing you can think of. I don’t even care if I believe in it personally or if it offends my sensibilities as a journalist or a human being.
Ice plus $50, coming right up. I’ll also donate the $10 or whatever the going “dunkage” rate is to the ALS charity folks for being good at their job.
Post your response here, tweet it, whatever. Readers can call this guy out as well:
The ball is in your court. The ice is waiting in my bucket.