Ethics and Ice Buckets: Competing to save lives

ice bucket

Beheadings, bombings and Ebola. It’s been a dark, heavy summer in world news.

I wonder if this grim backdrop has in some, unconscious way, contributed to the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge; a seemingly irrepressible internet meme that has collapsed geographies, social hierarchies and  personal inhibitions – ostensibly in the name of a good cause…and a good laugh.

While the idea has been around for a while, its latest incarnation is closely associated with ALS, a form of motor neurone disease (MND).

In the UK, the phenomenon has been seized on by a number of other charities, notably Macmillan Cancer Support, which has reportedly raised £250,000 so far.

But not without controversy: Macmillan, one of the UK’s biggest charities, has been accused of “hijacking” #IceBucketChallenge to raise funds for its  own charity. The claim is that Macmillan’s quick and slick online response to the trend, including the use of Google ads, has diverted donations away from the lesser well known cause (MND) which early US supporters intended it to highlight. This has been a particular point of contention since motor neurone disease  is considered an “orphan disease”; affecting only 30,000 Americans, ALS campaigners argue it has been ignored by pharmaceutical companies with little commercial incentive to invest in research.

According to The Independent, the Motor Neurone Disease Association isn’t best pleased. Nor are others, including past Macmillan donors. MNDA is estimated to have received  £14,000 as a result of the phenomenon.

The dispute raises THREE questions about the modern ethics and etiquette of online altruism, the charities seeking to leverage it, and the nature of campaigning:

1. Ownership. Are creative ideas for good causes fair game for any good cause?

The Ice Bucket Challenge was, in its latest, incarnation conceived to raise awareness and funds for ALS. But should this matter? Is ownership, in altruistic contexts, the prerogative of the author/creator or donator/benefactor?

2. Jurisdiction. Do cause-led campaigns online have ‘borders’?

The Ice Bucket Challenge has been circulating online for some time, where it has been taken up for a range of causes. But  regardless of where it first broke on to the scene, it seems undeniable that it was in the US and for ALS that the challenge first when mainstream. Does this automatically mean, then, that all subsequent challenges, outside America, should  also be for ALS? Does it even make sense to think of an online trend in country terms? And if not, should Macmillan have been less quick to jump on the ice bucket bandwagon or was it unrealistic of MNDA to expect to inherit support in the UK?

3. Exploitation. Should better-funded charities show any compassion for smaller causes?

There’s something uneasy about the whole tone of this discussion. After all, we’re talking about respected charities and important causes. There’s surely  no right or better option; just the one that any given person, for their own personal reasons, chooses to support.

But the whole dispute has surfaced an underlying naivety; a truth we’ve been only too happy to ignore.

We’re used to corporations being red in tooth and claw, but there’s an illusion that charities can somehow procure funds, even in economically challenging times, without coming into conflict with one another. Of course, charities inevitably compete with each other. But still, there’s something uncomfortable and incongruous about the idea of a larger charitable organisation eclipsing natural opportunities for small causes without its considerable marketing resource. But is this their problem?

Has Macmillan done anything wrong, ethically; or are they simply responding to the way social media has changed the economics of altruism – and therefore the rules of engagement?





Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>