Ice bucket campaign raises bar in fundraising

Gary MacDougall
Published on August 23, 2014

Guardian political reporter Teresa Wright, left, and managing editor Gary MacDougall get hit Thursday with the ALS ice bucket challenge.

Usually it’s hard to be both a party pooper and a drowned rat at the same time, but I managed to pull it off this week.

Radio personality Kerri Wynne MacLeod brought me kicking and screaming into the current “in” thing when it comes to helping out worthy causes — the ALS ice bucket challenge.

It works like this: someone challenges you to participate by allowing a bucket of ice water to be poured over your head. If you refuse, you must make a donation to the ALS organization. Most people who participate take the cold shower and make a donation. (Note to ALS folks, my cheque will soon be in the mail.)

After a person is dumped on he or she is supposed to challenge others to participate.

ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and is commonly referred to as Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was a famous New York Yankee baseball player who died from the disease in 1941.

ALS is nasty, but then there is no shortage of miserable diseases and the need for fundraising campaigns to deal with them. They are everywhere, from one of the granddaddies of charitable groups, the United Way, to others such as the Terry Fox Run, the pink ribbon campaign for breast cancer, the MS Society walk, heart and stroke campaigns and telethons for hospital equipment or sick children. And that’s not mentioning local fundraisers to help families in need.

The world is full of good causes, which presents a challenge to Coffeeshop Joe and Josephine who only have so much money to spread around. That’s what had me musing whether the ice bucket challenge was such a great thing in terms of the future of charitable fundraising.

The good news for charities and good causes is that people genuinely want to help. We humans come into the world with a built-in desire to help each other.

So the challenge for charities in this increasingly noisy multi-media world isn’t convincing the public to give but rather to convince the fickle public to give to their cause.

Enter social media and its ability to turn heads and grab the public’s attention.

What makes social media so different from previous media marketing tools is its immediacy. Where it used to take months of careful planning and PR strategy to launch a campaign, a few key strokes on social media via Facebook and Twitter can now do the trick. As a result, campaigns and causes rise and fall in a heartbeat.

And that’s exactly what happened with the ALS ice bucket challenge. It was all started by someone who has ALS, but the stunt has lit a fuse on social media and become the issue du jour. And that is fine for the ALS society, which desperately needs funding for both awareness and research. Massive amounts of dollars are pouring in at unprecedented rates for the organizations in Canada and the U.S. as individuals and businesses line up to support the fun initiative. So hats off to the ALS organizers, I wish them all the best.

But at the same time I worry about charities that may be being run over by the ice-bucket stampede. Most individuals only have so much money to give to cause. So, for example, if they were thinking of donating to the local food bank but got caught up in the ice bucket frenzy, well, too bad for the food bank.

This is not to say ALS is doing anything wrong, it is riding an incredible wave of goodwill. But if the new trend is that charities are forced to come up with a hot marketing ploy to ensure their survival, that’s likely more pressure than they need. After all, they are charitable organizations not Hollywood PR agencies. As a contributor to charitable initiatives, I want my money to go to help the cause, not employ spin doctors.

People are generous, and that’s a good thing. But members of the public need to think with their head as well as heart when they reach into their pocket. Give because giving is important, not just because you want to be entertained.


Gary MacDougall is managing editor of The Guardian. He can be reached by telephone at (902) 629-6039; by email at; or on