You can’t spell slacktivism without activism

Katy Penrod — Minerva Strategies

Remember the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge? Unless you use social media very infrequently or not at all, you likely saw at least one video in the past year of a friend or acquaintance being doused in icy water for the sake of ALS – short for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord – fundraising. Many of you likely engaged in the frigid shower yourselves, all in the name of a good cause.

But was the challenge about ALS at all?

Response to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fell largely into two camps: those who thought the dare was a great way to raise money for a painful and, at this point, incurable disease and those who believed the challenge was a vehicle for armchair activism (a.k.a. “slacktivism”), accomplishing little more than making the participants feel good about themselves and giving them the opportunity to share their superficially charitable actions with the world.

The answer is: it doesn’t matter

As Nicholas Kristof points out in a recent article in the New York Times, regardless of the motivations of the people involved in the challenge – which were likely a mix of genuine commitment to the cause and desire to take part in an entertaining viral dare – the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge raised a substantial amount of money (about $220 million) for ALS research and significantly increased awareness of the disease (the number of Google searches for “A.L.S.” was higher in the year 2014 than in the entire previous decade). Researchers at Johns Hopkins even claimed that their recent breakthroughs in ALS research would not have happened, at least not as quickly, without the money raised by the challenge.

The takeaway

There is a reason that most successful fundraising efforts are more than just a barebones ask. They take the form of participatory events like auctions, carnivals, runs, parties, and so on because people are much more likely to commit their time and/or money to a cause if they have a personal connection to it. While not everyone who participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge had a direct connection to the disease, they were able to engage in a fun activity that established another kind of individual tie to the cause. Moreover, the dare model of the challenge made spreading the word about ALS implicit in the process, a genius way to ensure the sustainability and continued expansion of fundraising efforts.

While armchair activism is not something to champion, cases like the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge show that armchair activism is better than no activism and highlight the importance of connecting people personally with a cause.