Monday, August 25, 2014

when good causes receive an ice bath

If your circle of friends is anything like mine, your news feed is probably being overrun with pictures and videos of people getting buckets of ice water dumped on their heads.

The Ice Bucket Challenge was created in support of the ALS Association that researches amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease. The idea for the frozen fundraiser went viral soon after that first bucket of ice water was dumped, and in one short month, the ALS Association has raised more 50 million dollars.

More than 50 million.

I still can’t really wrap my mind around that. In just a month - that is quite the chunk of change and I can’t resist doing the math and figuring out what that kind of money would fund in the area where we work. I’m fairly confident that we could eradicate child malnutrition, provide potable drinking water for all, send every highschool graduate to college, ensure a consistent medicine supply at every hospital, AND we could do this not only in our area but throughout the province, AND we could do it all NOW. Because, after all, 50 million dollars is Choshen Farm’s annual operating budget for the next 500 years.


As the Marketing and Communications Director (I gave myself that title, do you like it?) for our small, but significant organization, I can’t help but pay attention to what I’m seeing all over the interwebs. As so many people around the country, including so many people that I know personally, have gotten on board with a fundraising initiative as big as the ice bucket challenge, you better believe I’m taking notes.

There are plenty who have lost family or friends to Lou Gehrig’s disease and their participation in the ice bucket challenge has taken on a personal and significant meaning. But the viral nature of the campaign tempts me to believe that love and concern are not the grand motivators amongst the majority. I think the ALS campaign has been so successful because of its ability to make fundraising cool.

All the cool kids, including Michael Jordan and Ben Affleck, are doing it, and the message traveling fast is that you can too! For only $10, you can secure your claim to fame, being the next in line to join the club. The desire to be “in with the in” clearly does not dissipate after sixth grade and “everybody’s doing it” is as motivational as ever. A dare is basically irresistible, especially when the clock starts ticking and you’re told you have exactly 24 hours. Group-think is real and the marketers know it.

There has been some fantastic press surrounding the ice bucket challenge and hearty discussion about medical research and the shortage in public funding. But there has also been some push-back, critics questioning the wisdom of the campaign, with others highlighting the financial stewardship history of ALS or the relatively small number of Lou Gehrig’s disease sufferers compared other diseases. The author of a recent Slate article called participation in this campaign a “particularly ineffective way of spending your philanthropic dollar.”

But I don’t think that pros and cons and financial oversight and organizational vetting has been at the forefront of most people’s decision to jump on the bandwagon. The fad has been set in motion, and millions have been won over… The ice bucket challenge is a good gauge of the current fundraising climate in America.

And it worries me.

We are preparing to go back to the states for three months, carrying with us a just cause and compelling information and fire in our bones. Yet still, in light of all the ice bucket fervor, I’m feeling a little fatalistic about it. We are going to be traveling around trying to raise about $50,000 for special projects in the Fimpulu community – a mere 0.1% of what AIS has raised in the last month. The need Zambia is great and the potential impact is even greater and I know this! … and yet… I still rushed frantic into our office (kitchen) yesterday and blurted out to Jeremy, “We’ve got nothing!!!” To which he replied, “Excuse me?” And I explained, “We have no ice water!”

not an ice bucket challenge, just a bucket bath, because that's how we roll

 Melodramatic though I am, I think I am carrying around in my gut a legitimate concern about the recent trend in American generosity. If the ice bucket challenge has taught me one thing, it is that the coolest campaign, and not the worthiest cause, that ultimately gets the dough.

ALS is certainly not the only successful organization to pull this off. Traditional support letters and verbal communication are fast approaching archaic in this new fundraising atmosphere characterized by concerts and 5k’s and jewelry-made-by-widows-theme-parties.

Calling these fundraising strategies what they are – gimmicks – sounds both crass and confrontational, but it is true nonetheless. Big organizations have a lot of good things to accomplish both at home and abroad and many, many dollars are needed to make it happen. But experience has taught us all that the organizations with the greatest cause had better have one heck of a marketing team specializing in stage production.

“Give the donors what they want” is rule number one in the fundraising world; and about five seconds on facebook clearly identifies that what the donors want is excitement and fanfare and something share-worthy. This is the millennial generation for you, and to a certain degree, the X and Y generations as well – deeply experiential and motivated primarily by emotion. Hardly won by mere propositional truth of here is the need and here is why you should give – the 20 and 30 somethings of today simultaneously engage their wallets and narcissistic world-view, sitting like Howard Stern as a judge on “America’s Got Cause,” buzzing through organizations not by their long-term, sustainable output but by the dazzle of their 30 second fundraising fanfare.

And here is where we, the little people of the fundraising world, feel the rub. Tons of worthy, urgent, compelling causes plod along underfunded because their marketing strategy does not optimally include the cool/fun/entertainment factor. Maybe we are too busy doing the hands-in-the-dirt kind of work to create the bejeweled marketing scheme. Maybe our consciences require that our limited funds meet the immediate needs around us instead of blowing them on light shows and set design.

my focus is here. 

 And maybe I need to crawl down from my high horse and just give people what they want. Maybe so. 

But our little bush-dwelling marketing team of two does not play this game well. We have spent too much time reading missionary biographies and histories of the church and we know that once upon a time, it was not like this. There was an era, before facebook, when donor bases consisted of people whose support stemmed more from conviction than entertainment and who asked one question only to determine a cause’s worth: Is God in it? And if the answer was yes, their hearts and wallets opened. And their eyes closed. Because Is God in it? is much less a question of intrigue and much more perception through prayer.

My fear in going back to the states and working to raise this money is the fear that America has lost this discipline of old, the discipline of asking the right question (Is God in it?) to determine the right answer (Yes, and I give; or No, and I don’t give.). I fear that our eyes have grown so accustomed to the bright lights of the stage and waiting for the show to begin, that our senses have dulled towards what is truly brilliant in character and not just facade. I fear that in conditioning our eyes to the light of our iphones we have become disused to the darkness of eyes in prayer, waiting for the still small voice.

I can’t dictate for everyone who to give to or how to decide and I’m not even swinging this piece to say that you should give to Choshen Farm and an not ALS - not at all. All I know is that we would rather raise $50,000 prayer-filled dollars than $50,000 fast and flashy ones knowing that the former is the kind of campaign that will echo into eternity. And I still believe that there are generous folks out there who want their dollars to echo too.

What do you think? What kind of marketing ethos do you want your charitable organizations to have? What kind of donor do you want to be?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Bethany -

    As usual, great post and totally agree ... the amount of show (e.g., how you sell) has definitely taken precedent over the tell (e.g., what you're selling).

    Need to come and see your farm sometime, let me know if you need any advice on anything.

    The Capt., Western Province