Thursday, September 11, 2014

Don't Play With Ice

People dunking a bucket of ice water over their heads.

Most of you would have seen the videos splattered all over the social network. Started in the US (where else), picked up momentum through celebrities (who else), and gone viral worldwide (what else). It's meant to raise charitable awareness and donations in a super duper awesome fun way.

Personally? I think it's silly, sneaky and stupefying.

My advice? Don't play with ice. Ice is like fire. Ice can burn. Ice can hurt. In more ways than we can imagine.

How To Play The Challenge

Let's run through the mechanics of the #ALSIceBucketChallenge briefly.

The person challenged has to choose within 24 hours whether to accept or to refuse the challenge. If you accept, you have to record a footage of yourself being drenched with a bucket of ice water over the head, nominate three other persons, and in some cases, also donate US$10 to the ALS foundation. If you refuse, you have to donate US$100 to the foundation.

Celebrities who have been a good sport and accepted the challenge includes Bill Gates, Leonardo Di Caprio and LeBron James. President Obama refused and donated instead. Some even oppose to the challenge entirely, like Pamela Anderson, on the basis that ALS research uses embryonic stem-cell in violation of pro-life beliefs.

Ice Ice Baby!

Photo by Elise Amendola AP

Why The Challenge Has Caught On

Why has the challenge been such a great success? Three reasons and things that go into people's head:

  • Celebrity influence: "Oh look, all the celebrities are doing it! I wanna do it too!"
  • Cool factor: "This looks so cool! If I do it, I'll look cool to all my friends!"
  • Compulsion effect: "Shit. I've been publicly challenged. If I don't take up the challenge, people will think I'm a heartless person."

Sure, some people genuinely want to donate and raise awareness. But there's nothing to stop you from donating how much you want and encouraging your friends to donate - without the ice bucket.

Sure, the ice bucket is an effective marketing gimmick to further those two objectives. But is such a marketing gimmick the right way to do it?

Why The Challenge Is Doing It Wrong

Let's be honest to ourselves. No one likes to be stopped by beggars on the streets. We hasten our steps when harassed by some salesperson from the local kidney foundation or UNICEF at the mall or train station. We're wary of mute monks or blind kids approaching our tables while we're happily slurping down food at the stalls.

There's nothing wrong feeling slightly annoyed - or even outraged - by such crude overtures to seek donations. As much as charity comes from the heart, charity should also be filtered through the mind. If you've only got a dollar note to spare, you have to choose wisely who to give that dollar note to. If you pass the dollar to a fraudster, not only have you deprive a deserving beneficiary of that dollar but also encourage fraudsters to try their luck again and dilute the charity pool.

Back to the ice bucket challenge. Why the 24-hour deadline? How is that enough time for people to do a proper research on ALS and to verify the soundness on the foundations' management? Why the public nomination? Won't it put people in a difficult spot? The subtle intent behind the mechanics is to pressure us to donate and spread the word around without thinking. Those who have participated, please be honest - did you spend more time researching on ALS or figuring out how and when to execute the challenge?

In essence, the #ALSIceBucketChallenge is nothing more than a classic chain letter trick. Pass the message to 10 other people within 24 hours, or else you will have bad luck for the rest of your life (or die). A ticking time bomb. Just pass it along, don't think.

No thank you for the outpouring of pressure.

Why Donating Without Thinking Is A Bad Thing

Most people justify donating to charities they're unsure about by telling themselves: "It's charity. Just donate. Why think? Even if it's a scam or suspect, so be it. It's the thought that matters."

Wrong. You should always think before you donate. The term's called 'moral licensing'. It's proven that people who donate once, are less likely to donate again soon. There's bound to be a cooling period (pun intended). They subconsciously think that they've done enough good to excuse themselves from being good in the near future. And this amounts to 'charity cannibalism' - some charities eating up larger pieces of the pie, leaving other charities left with crumbs. William MacAskill explains the theory best.

Within a space of a month, the ALS Association claims to have raised US$94.3 million. That's a lot of money. Money that can perhaps be shared to treat and cure other diseases (like malaria, which continues to kill hundreds of thousands African children per year).

Malaria elimination needs your help

We are only humans. All humans have a limit on attention, compassion and money. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation focuses on improving the living standards of developing countries - despite his wealth, Bill Gates doesn't even donate to every damn cause in the world.

The point is not that ALS research doesn't deserve the spotlight and funding. The point is that we shouldn't let a single cause monopolise the spotlight and funding. That's unfair for the rest of the causes.

In fact, the ALS Association is now taking steps to trademark the 'Ice Bucket Challenge'. If they succeed, it means that other charitable organisations can't resort to the same challenge to raise funds and awareness. So much for sharing and caring, huh? (Also, it's not like the ice bucket challenge is an original idea that has never been done before.)

How I Responded To The Challenge

Few weeks ago, I was challenged by a friend (who had been awkwardly challenged whilst on a long-haul flight and scrambling to respond to the challenge during transit). I was conflicted. I mulled long and hard about what to do next. I considered nominating an Eskimo, a Sub-Saharan tribesman and Darth Vader.

In the end, I did respond to the challenge, in my own way. Did I donate? Maybe I did, maybe I didn't. Doesn't matter, does it? People seem more keen in watching videos of people pouring ice buckets on themselves, anyway. And I made a video of my response:

My own challenge to the world is this: Take a moment once a month, or even once a week, to do charity. Take your pick on what tugs your heart strings the most. It can be visiting the local adoption home. It can be feeding kids in Africa. It can be anything.

Don't play with ice, kids. You don't need a bucket of ice to make your heart melt.

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