Americans are probably not unique in treating philanthropy as a sort of game, with the goal of making it go down painlessly.
The ice bucket challenge sweeping the nation — or at least Facebook and Twitter — is another example. It's a system that includes credit card companies making a Christmastime donation every time you charge a purchase, or shoe companies sending a pair to Africa when you buy one for yourself, or your pledging money for every mile that someone else runs a charity race.
On the surface there's nothing wrong with any of this, since every dollar donated means one dollar more. But deeper down, the ice bucket challenge illustrates why it's a problem.
The challenge benefits the ALS Association, which supports research into the degenerative condition ALS — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig's disease. As described by the association, the challenge "involves people getting doused with buckets of ice water on video, posting that video to social media, then nominating others to do the same, all in an effort to raise ALS awareness." Donations have topped $41.8 million just since July 29, more than double what has previously been raised in a year.
ALS is a devastating condition and is almost invariably fatal, with most victims living two to five years after symptoms first appear, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But ALS is also a rare disease. The CDC estimates the prevalence of ALS in the United States at about 12,000 people.
The disease is far outstripped by many other conditions requiring research funding. These include Alzheimer's (an estimated 5.2 million patients in the United States) and diabetes (25.8 million).
Stunt philanthropy like the ice bucket challenge doesn't accommodate these sorts of distinctions and comparisons — it just feeds whatever charity hits on a catchy device and treats all causes as essentially equivalent, distinguished only by their claim on public attention.
The result is that "the most successful charities will be those that are best at soliciting funds, not those that are best at making the world a better place," as the British philanthropic organizer William MacAskill puts it. The concern of philanthropy experts like him is that high-profile fundraising campaigns end up cannibalizing other donations — those inclined to donate $100 to charity this summer, or this year, will judge that they've met their social obligations by spending the money on ALS.
The hard work of philanthropy always lies in creating a sustainable donor base. You want to contribute to the fight against ALS, great. But if you're doing it just because you saw or heard about Bill Gates, Jimmy Fallon or Justin Timberlake dumping ice water on their head, maybe you should give a bit more thought to where you donate your money.
© 2014 Los Angeles Times