Should charity begin at home, or on Facebook?

Social media and online giving are playing increasingly important and influential roles in determining how the public gets involved in fundraising for and donating to charities, and in how fundraisers like me raise money.

Remember the phenomenal success of such campaigns? Stephen Sutton’s Thumbs Up campaign involved 7 per cent of the 2,058 adults surveyed online and raised £5million. The #nomakeupselfie campaign engaged 6 per cent and raised £8 million.

We all want to jump on those bandwagons, but do we really need to throw ice-cold water over ourselves, or a friend, in order to donate to charity? Surely charity begins at home, not on Facebook?

Recent research for the Charities Aid Foundation shows the Ice Bucket Challenge as the most successful of its kind, raising $100m (£60m+) with 17 per cent – that is one in six Britons – taking part. It also raised awareness globally for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), or Motor Neurone Disease.

More than 2.4 million ice bucket-related videos have been posted on Facebook, and 28 million people have uploaded, commented on or liked ice bucket-related posts. On Instagram 3.7 million videos were uploaded with the hashtags #ALSicebucketchallenge and #icebucketchallenge. Justin Bieber's was the most popular with around one million ‘likes’.

One in ten British people said they donated to charity as result of the Ice Bucket Challenge campaign, with an average of almost £5 donated as a result. The majority of these donations are reported to be additional to the amount people were planning to give this year anyway, meaning charities are potentially getting an extra boost. Other UK charities, like the motor neurone disease charity MND Association, have benefited.

Pre-ice bucket, the MND Association would receive around £200,000 a week in donations. But between August 22 and 29 it received £2.7 million. Macmillan Cancer Support benefited by £3 million, and Water Aid received £47,000 in one day alone – 50 per cent higher than it ever received in a single day before. Admittedly, the money came in part from people concerned about the water wasted in the challenges.

There have been many criticisms of the Ice Bucket Challenge. Some have dismissed it as a silly gimmick, a stunt, as much about vanity as charity, and an opportunity to show off online while feeling momentarily better about ourselves.

Memorably, one columnist called it ‘the Ebola virus of the campaign world: the chink in our armour is not our immune systems after all, but our egos’. And that ‘it smacks of ego-maniacal self-congratulating: a wet T-shirt competition for the masses to promote their goodness and their half-naked bodies and finally, somewhere waaaay down the list they vaguely remember to promote a cause’.

She may well have a point. The survey on social media trends found the following:

  • Over half of British people polled said they did not donate to an ALS charity after taking part in an ice bucket challenge.
  • Over a third said they did the challenge just to gain attention on social media.
  • One in ten claimed to have done an ice bucket challenge because they felt pressured into doing so after receiving a nomination.
  • Additionally, 53 per cent of people who completed the challenge did not know what cause it was supporting.
  • Only 16 per cent said they donated between £1 and £3 to an ALS charity after completing the challenge, while 3 per cent said they donated £10 or more.

But another aspect needs to be considered, and that is not me eating sour grapes. I have, admittedly, looked on enviously thinking ‘why didn’t I come up with a good idea like that’? I would have happily taken some of the money for my charity’s Nurse Training in Africa sponsorship initiative, particularly as so many nurses have died during this Ebola outbreak and need replacing, urgently.

I also realise that I sound very old fashioned when I say that I believe giving to charity should be an act of altruism, something that people do as a service to others without compulsion, an act based on free will and motivated by the conviction that it is the right thing to do. Just like volunteering was before it became professionalised.

As Frank Furedi wrote, people used to volunteer out of a sense of social obligation to the community and the desire to help others. But today’s volunteering professionals do not believe that people can still be expected to serve others out of a sense of civic duty. ‘What is truly tragic about the professionalisation of volunteering is that it implicitly evades the challenge of motivating people - especially the young - through appealing to their sense of solidarity and community.’

Of course we all do things out of self-interest, it is an important part of human behaviour. Nor can or should we all be ‘do-gooders’ either. But I think altruism needs to be rekindled, and it’s up to us oldies to persuade the younger generation that it’s a worthwhile value, not something gained through wet T-shirt competitions.

About the author

Bríd Hehir is a fundraising manager for the Do Good Charity, which sponsors nurse training and education in Africa. She worked in the NHS until 2011, as a nurse, midwife and specialist heath visitor, and latterly a senior manager. She is a regular contributor to spiked and is a Battle of Ideas committee member