My take on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

Now that the madness of #BoxWorks 2014 is over, I’d like to arrive late to the party (as usual) and address the latest Internet craze to sweep the nation: The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

First, I’d like to thank Dong Ming and Vishal Joshi for separately nominating me in this new-age chain letter, so I wouldn’t feel left out 🙂 Their videos were great, and I felt compelled to respond – social media at its best!

At first, I expressed concern that I was living in California (currently in an extreme drought, if you haven’t heard) so it wouldn’t be an honorable thing to douse myself with a bucket of water in public… but after doing a bit more research, the #droughtshaming that is currently in vogue seems a bit misguided. You see, personal water use in California is only about 4% of our state’s consumption. The overwhelming majority of water (80%) is actually spent in agriculture – and mostly to support livestock! Now, I’m no PETA member (though I enjoy using the free address labels that they mail me), but I would have to say that we would make a much bigger difference in our water conservation efforts by reducing our demand in meat products. If you want to read more on this topic, check out this article. There are also plenty of other questionable ways our water is used, as pointed out to me by others.

So once my concerns about wasting water in California were allayed, my thoughts turned to the nature of the campaign itself. Sure, there have been plenty of sincere pledges and genuine concern for those with ALS, but there have been plenty of instances I saw where making an ALS video was borderline commercial:

Or even just explicit advertising:

There was plenty of shame to dole around, and it really soured my mood to be a part of this kind of movement.

Narcissism aside, the default option was always available: Just simply donate to ALSA and be done with it. But some aspects of the ALS Association were bothering me, too… For example, the ALS Association was trying to trademark “their” Ice Bucket Challenge, which seemed counter to the spirit of the movement. It was also shown that less than 28% of the funds were going to eventually go to actual research on the disease. Of course, I’m aware of how we’re thinking about charity wrong when we scrutinize their financials like this, but I was also falling prey to pessimism due to the fact that ALSA has been around for decades now and we don’t seem to be actually that much closer to finding a cure. I thought a cure for ALS seemed as elusive as a “cure for cancer”, but the latter would help orders of magnitude more people.

This brought me to my final thought, which was the realization that – despite my own distaste for ALSA – I had no right to judge which charities other people give their money to. Also, I didn’t have to be coerced into donating to a charity just because of a social media campaign. Like many things in life, I was overthinking it.

I believe philanthropy is inherently a personal exercise, and where you give your time or money to should be based on deeply individual values and interests. If you have loved ones with ALS, it makes perfect sense to do as much for the cause as you can. If, instead, you are only close to people with Alzheimer’s Disease, then perhaps you’re more inclined to find ways to help on that front. The world is full of all kinds of problems to fix and causes to care about – if you’re contributing anything for any nonprofit, you’re already an outstanding human being and should take intrinsic pride in that. If you haven’t thought about it yet – well, it’s never too late to do some good for the world!

With that, I have decided to take the challenge to mean “donate $100 to a cause of your choice”, and I’ll distribute it through a few of the nonprofits that I regularly support – the Berkeley Engineering Fund, the American Cancer Society, and DonorsChoose.org. I’ve also learned about a few more over the past few months that I’m starting to take an interest in: Water.org, Heifer International, and Habitat for Humanity.

To follow the ‘rules’ of the social media campaign that got us here, I’ll challenge three more people to donate $100 to whatever causes they care about: Brian Tran, Siong Chan, and Tim Edgar, you have “24 hours”! Or you could just put yourself through some mild discomfort for everyone’s enjoyment 🙂

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