Viral vanity or phenomenal philanthropy?

Posted on October 8, 2014 by Eleanor McKenzie
Orange Donate Button on Computer Keyboard

The recent omnipresence of the Ice Bucket Challenge (IBC) on all my social media channels has aroused my interest in this new phenomenon of taking action for a charity and nominating your friends to do it as well. Is it vanity giving—as some suggest–or genuine generosity?

Before social media, we gave to charity by putting money in boxes and buckets, or we wrote cheques and put them in the post. We might also have donated via a direct debit from our bank account. We didn’t phone all our friends the minute we’d made a donation. It was something we kept to ourselves unless the topic came up in conversation. However, perhaps we should accept that this old-fashioned way is outdated and embrace the advantages of 21st century activity-based donations.


First of all, it raises awareness – and it does it swiftly and surely: especially, when celebrities including Leonardo DiCaprio and Kermit the Frog take part. I had never heard of ALS before the Ice Bucket Challenge, or so I thought. ALS is Amytrophic Lateral Sclerosis or Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s the American name for motor neurone disease or MND.

Now, that I do know about, because UK physicist Stephen Hawking has lived with MND for many years. The disease causes a progressive degeneration of the neurons in the brain and spinal cord that control our muscles. Eventually lack of voluntary and involuntary muscle control causes death. There’s no doubt that this disease needs more money poured into research and as of the beginning of September 2014, the IBC raised $112.4 million to support research and help for sufferers and their families.

Second, it can raise large sums of money quickly. A few weeks ago there was a horrendous fire at Manchester & Cheshire Dogs Homes. Thanks to Just Giving, the website for online fundraising that enables hundreds and thousands of people to contribute to all sorts of major and minor charities, people across the country have been able to respond quickly to the emergency and make donations to help the animals.

Cancer Research UK has benefited from social media’s ability to engage vast numbers of people—and their Facebook friends—in both raising awareness and money. The No Make-Up Selfie campaign raised £8 million in six days for the charity. It is doubtful that it could have raised such a sum without the help of Facebook and the rest of the media reporting the ‘challenge’ in which women posted ‘selfies’ without make-up and challenged friends to do the same. A donation does accompany the photo. According to Cancer Research UK the sum raised in the first week enabled it to carry out 10 more clinical trials.

It’s undoubtedly true that the Ice Bucket Challenge and other social media ‘charity challenges’ have probably changed charity fundraising, for the foreseeable future, or until something replaces the format. However, even if we’re somewhat irritated by the need for showmanship that accompanies almost every activity today—people can’t go out for dinner without sharing a photo of their food on Facebook—we must also remember that people with ALS and MND will benefit from the Ice Bucket Challenge and that this type of fundraising may just provide the funds that find a breakthrough treatment. It also undoubtedly raises awareness among an audience of younger social media users and encourages a new generation of people to get involved with charitable giving.

I may sometimes feel that there is too much ‘it’s about me’ in this style of giving, but rather than unite with the cynics who condemn the IBC as total vanity that shifts public attention away from other world problems, I suggest that we learn to live with the new style philanthropy and applaud those who donate. Personally, I loved actor Patrick Stewart’s solution to the IBC: drop many cubes of ice in a glass of whiskey, sign a cheque and send it to ALS or MND, then drink the whiskey. I know that he did that thanks to social media. I must admit, I’m quite tempted to help his method go viral!

by Eleanor McKenzie

Eleanor McKenzie is a Northern Irish writer with a passion for art, literature, and red wine. She's worked at advertising agency JWT, edited a journal for a European social policy think tank and tried to teach teenagers the difference between "there" and "their". Being 50+ has not significantly changed Eleanor's life, although she finds it a handy excuse when she wants to avoid anything too energetic.