This is the Life: ALS fundraising fad gone wild says a lot about human behaviour

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If you are curious about human behaviour you have had much to think about in these last few weeks. The ice bucket challenge craze attached to fundraising for the treatment and research of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or, as it was most commonly known in the past, Lou Gehrig’s disease) has been a huge boon to organizations in North America. On Sunday, I heard an American spokesman say that donations in the past month have been three times what they were in all of 2013. A Canadian representative said on Monday that $5 million had flowed into coffers in the last two weeks, a period in which they typically average “a few thousand dollars”.

If you follow any major social media feeds, like Facebook and Twitter, you have seen a fascinating explosion of interest. But the interest hasn’t been fueled by the horrors of a disease that eats away at the neuromuscular system, usually ending lives prematurely and painfully. Instead, people are donating because they have been challenged to make a donation, then film themselves having a bucket of ice water dumped on their head.

I have no problem with anything that encourages people to donate to worthy causes, and ALS is no doubt one. But I do wonder about the thought process at work here. Do many donors make their contributions with no thought about how the money is being used? Do they check to see how efficient the benefiting organization is and how much is being spent on administration and fundraising? Do they even know what ALS is and why the funds are needed?

My usual response to family, friends and acquaintances who are raising money for a charity is, just because it is your charity of choice doesn’t mean it’s mine. On the positive side, no one could have foreseen that the ice bucket challenge would have taken off as it has. And perhaps it is in part because ALS isn’t a widespread and over-reported disease that the challenge has resonated. Would it have had the same impact if the intent was to raise money for cancer or diabetes or lung diseases, all of which are far more common than ALS?

For reasons that I have been unable to fathom, the ice bucket challenge has become a phenomenon. I suspect, I hate to admit, that many see it as an excuse not just to do a good thing, but to be seen doing a good thing. I watched a video of my niece explaining that she had made a donation (which was doubled by the company she works for) but would I have done so without the expectation that she was about to be doused by a bucket of ice water? Not a chance. So she gets a little kick from the attention, gets to send out a charity chain letter in the guise of challenges to three others, and all of her Facebook friends get the entertainment value of seeing her shocked by the frigid water.

Fortunately, good information is at hand for those who really want to know about charities. I am particularly impressed with Charity Intelligence Canada, which publishes reports about the finances of various charities on its website. The information appears to be solid and is presented in a consistent manner, allowing viewers to easily contrast and compare data against other agencies.

In the case of the ALS Society of Canada, its mission is to find a cure and provide support for those with the disease. It estimates there are 2,500 to 3,000 Canadians living with ALS currently. It had revenues of $6.731 million last year and spent 12 per cent of donations on administrative costs and 31 per cent on fundraising, which means that of each dollar donated, 55 cents goes to programs designed to fulfill its mission. ALS Society of Canada has 11 full-time employees, the top 10 of which are paid an average compensation of $91,000 a year. The top paid employee makes between $160,000-$200,000 annually.

A caution — none of this information is particularly helpful unless it is compared to other charities. I have no interest in dumping cold water on non-profits or their financial supporters. But I have endless fascination for people who make uninformed spending choices when a fad like the ice bucket challenge comes along.

Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.