Slacktivism, Clicktivism and why I am hesitant to get cold and wet for charity this month

I am almost invariably irritated by those Facebook statuses that ask you to repost a statement – usually in the form of a bit of text posted in photograph format – on your own wall regarding what are if not out and out good causes, then at least good intentions. Ignoring the additional factor of poor spelling and grammar in several of them, my irritation is four-fold: first on many occasions these items filter down through people who haven’t actually checked their authenticity and as a result I am regularly asked to repost about it being such and such awareness week when in fact it isn’t.  Second, I dislike the almost bullying nature of the way they are written, especially the ones that bleat such statements as: “I bet only 3% of my friends will dare to repost this. I know who you are”.  Third, I resent the implication in many of them that I don’t otherwise care, know about or do anything for charities when in fact I do – regularly and extensively. And the fourth factor is simply that I seriously question what good they actually do. 

 For me, postings such as this fall into the category of those fairly new phenomena known as Slacktivism and Clicktivism – whereby all the respondent has to do is repost something or click Like rather than take any positive action (the “activism” which is the opposite of “slacktivism”. Thus the respondent gets to feel good about themselves from the comfort of their armchairs without actually having to do or contribute anything.  It would be wrong to assume that they achieve absolutely nothing at all – at the very least they may make a few people think, albeit fleetingly, about an issue that might otherwise go unheeded.  Some of them are also a bit more advanced and at least give some useful web addresses where readers might go for further information and/or to make a more positive contribution.  But in my mind, the action of reposting a status in itself will not make much of a difference – especially if those original posts are inaccurate or bullying in which case they are in serious danger of undoing any good they might otherwise achieve.  A post which incorrectly claims it to be a awareness week when it is not, will almost inevitably lead to many people discounting the posting when it actually is the correct week.   And similarly, for me clicking Like on something on Facebook will not actually help to cure cancer. Or Parkinson’s.  Or in this case Motor Neurone Disease (Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis in America.)

 Having now received three nominations to participate in the current ice bucket challenge, I have found myself giving the whole situation a fair bit of thought.  The upshot of all that brain activity is, at the risk of being branded a killjoy or a coward, I am still hesitant to do it.  Before I make some observations, please let me stress this is not a criticism of anyone who has already drenched themselves in ice and water. Not always at any rate.

 The ALS/Motor Neurone Disease Ice Bucket Challenge has become a global phenomenon almost overnight, and by now pretty much everyone has seen videos of dripping wet people throwing iced water over themselves. This trend was designed to raise awareness about a terrible illness and at the same time it was supposed to encourage participants to make donations to the associated charities by “paying for the pleasure” of getting soaked. 

 That there has been a lot of good come from it is not in question.  At the point of writing this, some £170,000 has been raised through Motor Neurone Disease (MND) Scotland’s campaign, and its sister organisation in England, Wales and Northern Ireland (the MNDAssociation) has now raised £1,000,000.   In the USA the total has reached a staggering $88.5million. In addition to being money beyond belief, it is also  money the organisations concerned may never have received. In Scotland for example it is by far the most successful online fundraising campaign MND has ever run both through the direct efforts of the ice bucketers and also the money which has come in through voluntary donations from those previously unaware of the disease but who did not want to be involved in the challenge. The situation is even more impressive in the USA where  the ALS Association has in the space of the few weeks of the campaign raised over $24million dollars more than it did in the whole of 2013.  As a spokesman for ALS has said, this is game-changing money and for that overwhelming amount of good that the challenge has done I am most certainly truly glad.

 That people have had a lot of fun contributing is also not in question, although the cynic in me is always wary of celebrities getting involved in these events as I do question whether their motive for doing so is purely from concern or mostly from the “look at me” potential for self-aggrandisement.  I am quite happy to agree that fundraising should be fun – failure to make it so often leaves the fundraising organisation open to lack of success.

 So in light of its evident success, why should I remain hesitant to participate? I have two gripes, and the first is regarding the system of nominations. To an extent I see it as an extension of the bullying nature of those Facebook statuses I have already mentioned. I do not like this aspect of being pressurised into contributing to a cause as it allows me no scope for establishing how worthy that cause actually is. In the case of MND Scotland I have no concerns, but having worked some years ago for a charity only to discover that two thirds of its charitable donations went on administrative costs, I have always been wary of donating to any cause without first ascertaining that my contribution is actually going to be used on the cause in hand.

 Incidentally, there is another side to the pressurisation story– one which was put to me today by a group of students to whom I had set the task of discussing the campaign and its positives and negatives.  The situation was simply this:  among their numbers was a young lone parent of two children for whom trying to find the £3 to donate after doing the challenge was a real struggle.  She felt alienated from the campaign in its designed form and the only way she could contribute at all was to do the challenge but instead of paying, smother her Facebook profile in logos and web addresses for the MND organisations.  She has of course now received several comments accusing her of being stingy or mean or some other phrases that were a lot worse than that.  To heap such condemnation on someone who in my book had actually done it right within the context of her personal circumstances is pitiful and just plain wrong.

But my major grumble regarding the ice bucket challenge is that as it is, many of the videos going viral do not even explain what the purpose is or how to donate. Consequently, the craze now seems to have become more focused on people getting soaked and the next nominations rather than increasing awareness of the disease or raising funds.   Sadly, there is a real risk that in but a short time the majority of people thinking about MND will be those who have the illness and their affected families and friends.  Pretty much just as it was before the campaign in fact. 

 I have absolutely no problem at all with people throwing buckets of freezing water over themselves (though I do wonder why my Scottish friends don’t just wait a couple of weeks until the rain gets that cold anyway) as long as that action is accompanied by making reference to what it is all about and how to donate, and more importantly making the required donation itself.  If people do not do that, then it becomes about them rather than the cause, and ultimately it becomes little other than a global wet teeshirt competition.  

 There are other annoying factors about the situation and one of those is the launching of a contemporaneous campaign by Macmillan Cancer Support. There is of course an online slanging match going on as to whose ball it is and who started the idea. Frankly the origin of the idea is of little relevance – ALS were the ones who ran it as an official fund-raising campaign which was then adopted in the UK. Although I am a great supporter of Macmillans in general, I do feel they have somewhat hijacked the Ice Bucket Challenge for their own ends.  Quite apart from being one of a number of high-profile cancer charities which, let’s face it, tend to attract a high proportion of the charitable giving, earlier this year they raised over £8 million with the “no make up selfie” campaign. It is fair enough if people elect to send money to Macmillan as a result of drenching themselves,  but making it an official campaign is not right. And the fact that they appear to have paid to sponsor ads on google about their campaign is in my opinion just plain wrong. Comparison in the UK between the income of Macmillan for 2013 and MNDA for example shows Macmillan raising nearly 14 times what MNDA did. Jumping on this bandwagon has directed funds away from MND/ALS charities which are not so much in the public’s eye. MND in Scotland may have raised more than any of their previous campaigns but I wonder how much their total would have exceeded the £170,000 raised so far had other charities not jumped on board.    

 I also believe that online fundraising campaigns such as Ice Bucket Challenge are by their very nature transient. Today’s cause will be tomorrow’s old hat as the participants move on to the next craze to hit the ether. I can see some truth in the argument that this at least serves to spread the money-generating potential around more evenly so that it doesn’t always go to the best known ones.  But I rather suspect (and I’d dearly love to be proved wrong) that the vast majority of those who are embracing Motor Neurone this month will have forgotten it by next year, and MND Scotland will be faced with an uphill struggle in trying to persuade the public to part with money during their routine fundraising.  I hear the counter-argument coming in that it is up to charities to keep the fresh ideas coming. Coffee mornings and jumble sales are not the way forward, of that we are sure.  But with an ever-increasing number of charities chasing the same people for money, there will undoubtedly be casualties.

 And this brings me to another aspect – one that has bothered me for some time now. Simply put, the longer we raise sums through charities (and the higher those sums become), the less inclined our various governments will be to fund the vital research or work directly.  In a civilised society I believe firmly that it should be a government responsibility to provide the bulk of funding for vital services. I do hear the argument about “big society” and how people like to contribute etc. and I most certainly do not want to take anything away from those who have worked tirelessly to make things better for so many through their charity work. But in my lifetime I believe charitable giving has moved from funding what might have been seen as luxuries, nice add-ons to existing provision, to funding the actual provision itself.  This is of course only my perception but I rather suspect that the truth is not that far removed from it.  

 
So, will I be taking up the challenge given that my main objections are to do with the hijacking of the event for personal benefit rather than the event itself?   I have no real desire to get cold and wet so taking the easier option of making a simple donation, or contributing to the pages of those using the justgiving facility is definitely attractive to me.

 But I probably will do something that involves ice and water – no, not having a wee dram as you should never put ice anywhere near a good single malt. And here’s the reason:  most of those who know me well are aware that I have a mascot who accompanies me on my various fundraising activities and who has ridden the 1000 miles or so of charity cycle rides with me, albeit in my back pocket.  His name is Wee Jinky, named after Celtic and Scotland footballing legend Jimmy “Jinky” Johnstone who is one of only a few sporting heroes I have.

Jimmy Johnstone died of motor neurone disease in March 2006.

 Therefore if I do decide to empty a bucket of very cold water over myself (and I am not fully committed yet) it will be on the basis that the best way to make my point is to actually do the darned challenge according to what I consider to be “right”.  This means that it will have three conditions attached:  first, my video will contain only a few seconds footage of me in my chittering wetness; second, the significant bulk of it will focus on MND and will be logo-ed and branded to the hilt; and third, my mascot will be at my side when we, resplendent in hoops and shorts bearing the number 7, get our drookit dooking, no doubt to a backing track of Dirty Old Town.

 

I also would like to think that come next June when MND Scotland actually do have an MND Awareness week, I will not have forgotten them.

 

To return the focus to where it should be, please visit the websites

www.mndscotland.org.uk (Scotland)
www.mndassociation.org (England, Ireland & Wales)

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2 thoughts on “Slacktivism, Clicktivism and why I am hesitant to get cold and wet for charity this month

  1. Good article and spot on with your observations. The Ice bucket challenge has not reached France (Finistere) where I live and I hope it never does. The French expect the government to do the right thing for causes. I think the charity culture in the UK is out of control and is now a huge business that has lost its way as to why it all started in the first place with some CEO on big pay packages!!. And as you say I am not convinced that all the money raised ends up in the right place. Although that is not an excuse to not give it still makes me question the charity before I give.

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