Matthew Sherrington: 'The ice bucket challenge has been the cause of a great deal of bitchiness'

Whether it was genuine engagement with the cause or just being part of the zeitgeist, the motives behind donors' participation in the fundraising craze were not for charities to decide, writes our columnist

Matthew Sherrington
Matthew Sherrington

It has been the summer of the ice bucket challenge – quite the viral phenomenon, with more than $100m (£62m) raised for the ALS Association, the US-based charity for motor neurone disease.

The UK's MND Association has received about six months' money in a couple of weeks and donations have flowed to scores of other charities. But scratch the surface and a lot of bitchiness was tucked away in the media comment.

First there were "concerns" over whether a small charity such as ALS could handle such a massive windfall. Could the charity spend the money properly? Could it manage the unprecedented challenge of supporter retention? Tell me if there is a single charity that would not see it as a nice problem. The MND Association was quick to announce £1m worth of research projects it had in the pipeline without funding.

Then the suggestion of cannibalisation came up, implying damage to more deserving causes. Yes, big fundraising moments can suck air out for a short while, although most organisations don't feel a thing. But people do give extra when moved, and we are talking about small donations, on the whole. Some people might not support international development ("charity begins at home"); others might not think retired donkeys need rubberised flooring to ease their knee joints. There is no accounting for what touches people's hearts. There is no hierarchy of entitlement when it comes to money.

Yet there was comment questioning people's motives, which I fear reflects wider disdain for supporters, when donors are mostly valued for their unrestricted pound. Shock, horror – half of people doing the ice bucket challenge did not even give. There were sneers about narcissism, the video selfies mimicking celebrities, doing it to show off, having no idea about the issue or the organisation. The same was said of Movember. "Viral ignorance", it has been called, in the context of campaigns such as Kony2012 – lots of noise, no impact at all. The label "clicktivism", the use of social media to promote a cause, dismisses participation for being passive, when it is charities that ask people to do it and tell them it will make a difference.

So is one pound more worthy than another, depending on how engaged with the issue the donor is? People want to make a difference and want to belong, to be part of a zeitgeist. In a social media age, they want to record and share. These desires have come together with the ice bucket challenge. In the long term, it is something participants will remember doing, unlike making a text donation or liking a petition. They might not recall the charity they did it for, but they will remember feeling good about it. That will lower the barrier of resistance next time something comes along.

What causes the supporters choose to engage with, how they want to judge the quality and impact of an organisation's work, what inspires them and how they choose to engage is, by definition, up to them. Our responsibility is to inspire and encourage action at one end of the chain, and to deliver effective work in pursuit of the mission at the other. All that snobbery is sour grapes.

Matthew Sherrington is a consultant on strategy, fundraising and communications at Inspiring Action Consultancy

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