Viral Slacktivism or Social Media Fundraising Win?

Viral Slacktivism or Social Media Fundraising Win? September 2, 2014

BC_ClintSchnekloth_bioHey, here’s an idea. Let’s raise money for a charity by daring each other to pour buckets of ice over our heads. Two months ago, if someone had suggested this in a planning session at church, I doubt I would have gotten behind the idea. It never occurred to me that so many people—young, old, famous, obscure—would willingly sit down in front of a video camera and let friends pour vast quantities of ice-cold water over them.

I admit that I was skeptical of the phenomenon at first. When video footage of people accepting the challenge started inundating my Facebook news feed, my first thought was, Oh no, somebody is going to challenge me, and I don’t know if I want to do this! Within a week, our household had received the challenge multiple times, especially from close family and friends.

So Wednesday afternoon our clan of five went out in the backyard and one-by-one got re-baptized under torrents of freezing water. It was pretty fun. In the Arkansas heat, it was refreshing to take cooling off to an extreme. We plan to make a donation to a cause our household universally supports, Lutheran World Relief (www.lwr.org) and their work providing safe, clean drinking water to families and communities around the world.

As with any viral media meme, there are lovers and haters of the ice bucket challenge. Some critics have valid points. The ice bucket challenge may be an example of slacktivism, an easy and entertaining way to feel good about our benevolence.

The challenge may also fail the basic tests of charity, that we should spend our charitable dollars, if we are rational, where there is the greatest need, where the dollars will have the greatest influence, and in addressing the most urgent problem. This is the rational approach to charity, with the caveat that anyone who has been directly affected by ALS will also tell you that they see the greatest need right there, in their own life, or in the life of their family or friend.

Scott Gilmore writes in Macleans, “We aren’t rational, though. Typically, you will spend more time considering where to order a pizza and what to put on it, than you will deciding where to donate your charitable dollars.” It’s true. In general we spend much more energy consuming things that entertain us than we do actively working to address the very real needs of a hurting world.

As a pastor, I have often wondered how we might create a viral fund-raising strategy that raises significant funds to address the world’s greatest needs and most urgent problems. I have learned through many years of blogging and posting to social networks that activism, invitations to benevolence, typically get far less traffic than posts about the things that entertain us.

This, though, is the genius of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. Somehow this particular challenge has wedded significant advocacy and benevolence to entertainment. It has become something we all do, and do in front of others. It’s like a giant game of truth or dare, and let’s all admit that as nervous as truth or dare makes us, it’s also loads of fun, if you simply throw yourself into it.

It’s also incredibly entertaining, especially when somebody like Patrick Stewart takes the ice bucket challenge to a new level, or the staff of the Iowa State Fair takes the challenge while sliding down the giant slide. In spite of my reservations, I think I’m generally in favor of a social meme that challenges all of us to be more generous, to donate to worthy causes, and to challenge each other to donate more.

The ice bucket challenge has an intriguingly happy mix of individualist and collectivist energy. It’s highly individual… it’s all about me dumping ice water on my head and somewhat narcissistically posting it for the whole world to see. But it is also about subjecting ourselves to the collective, accepting the challenge of others, and holding each other accountable in our benevolence.

Personally, I hope the next viral charity drive will address the more urgent and greatest needs of the world, which when ranked, probably start with addressing hunger here and abroad, ending malaria, addressing refugee crises in places like the Sudan, or if the goal is to address an important under-funded health issue in the United States, heart disease.

I hope the next ice bucket challenge holds us accountable to regular, sacrificial forms of activism and benevolence. I pray that we will challenge each other not to simply put band-aids on the wounds of the world, but work to actively heal them.

But I also hope that as we take up the very hard work of justice, of activism for those in need, of sacrificial charity, that we will do it refreshed and energized, invigorated as only ice cold water invigorates. Activism that gives life to others while also enlivening us is far and away the best kind.

Clint Schnekloth is lead pastor at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Fayetteville, Arkansas. He has blogged for more than a decade as “Lutheran Confessions,” and consults widely on digital social media ministry. His recent book Mediating Faith is featured in the Patheos Book Club here.


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