Yes. I am a curmudgeon.
You can’t look at Facebook or TV these days without seeing the latest Ice Bucket Challenge™ by a celebrity, friend, politician, marching band, rabbi, cantor, or summer camp (Nice to see the “Challenge” has been trademarked)
Last month, few people knew about ALS – even many of those that were participating in the challenges. Some people call this slacktivism – feeling good by wearing a ribbon. Social media turned philanthropy into a game; and few connect the game to the actual cause.
I am conflicted.. or even PERPLEXED.
Is it better to just raise the money and run? Is education and engagement and advocacy necessary?
In 2013, the ALS Association in Washington DC raised $19 million. It spent about 25% on fundraising and administrative expenses, and was left with $14 million for programs to find therapies, cures, or support systems for the 12,000 Americans who suffer from the incurable, degenerative illness. (White men and veterans are far more likely to develop ALS, but no one knows why, yet.)
Fast forward to 2014. In the 3 weeks between July 29 and Aug. 20, the organization raised $31.5 million, more than 16 times the amount raised in the same time period last year. They had 70,000 new donors.
Many estimate that the ALS Association will receive $100 million by the end of the Summer, and it has incurred literally NO fundraising expenses for these dollars.
It is quite a windfall. And it has involved peer to peer solicitations, which is perhaps the least expensive and most powerfully persuasive form of solicitation.
Which makes me think of Maimonides eight levels of charitable giving.
According to the RaMBaM, the greatest gift is to support a person with a loan, a partnership, or a job so that they become independent. The next level is to give to those in need anonymously or to give anonymously to a trustworthy fund. Neither the needy nor the giver are known to each other. The third level is to give to the needy, but the needy do not know the giver. In the fourth level, the recipient is aware of the donor, but the donor is not aware of the recipient. A lesser fifth level is to give directly to the poor, placing the gift in the recipients’ hands – having a human connection – and giving this gift before being solicited. In the sixth level, the giver donates to the poor after being solicited for a donation. A lesser seventh level is to happily give with a smile, but not give enough; and the eighth level is to give a gift unhappily (yet still give).
Perhaps a ninth level is needed? It would be to give loudly and publicly, with fanfare, after being solicited by a celebrity or friend in an Ice Bucket Challenge™, wet and unhappy, and without knowing much about the cause or its Charity Navigator rating.
(You realize that most of those on Facebook who douse themselves are the ones who refuse to donate to ALS, but luckily, most are donating as well as dousing. We don’t want to celebrate those who refuse to give to tzedakah).
The philanthropy did not have much to do with this new largesse. It began in Beverly, Massachusetts. Pete Frates, 29, has lived with ALS since 2012, and he has worked with The ALS Association’s Massachusetts Chapter. A former Boston College athlete, Frates works to spread awareness of the illness. He and his family started the challenge and challenged Boston local athletes to participate. After several months of quiet posts on social media, the challenge hit a tipping point this Summer when celebrities and more sports figures got involved.
I imagine that every philanthropy in America is wondering how they can enlist and leverage social media and create their own viral program to generate funds… and awareness… and new brand ambassadors, of course.
When the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy was asked to reflect on the challenge, Stacy Palmer said that the generosity to the ALS Association this Summer would most likely be a one-time occurrence, and that the ALS Association would be hard pressed to develop most of these donors to contribute in future annual campaigns. She also reported that over several decades, the percentage of national income that is donated to charity in America has remained constant, which could mean that $100 given to ALS this Summer would be $100 that will not be donated to another worthy charity in 2014.
I admit that the cynic in me wonders if $100 million for the ALS Association is the best allocation of resources, and whether it could have much of a positive effect. Researchers need a steady stream of funding over several decades, and not just a one time grant.
Barbara Newhouse, formerly a regional leader in Alzheimer’s and cancer fundraising and now President and CEO of The ALS Association, said “There’s so many ways we can go with these dollars on the research front. It’s going to take some thoughtful discussion around the types of research and believe me, since this started, I’m getting requests coming in moment by moment with everybody having their own spin on research. So we’re going to work prudently through a process that gets us to what’s the right use of these dollars.”
Alternatively, Dr. Jonathan Serody of the University of North Carolina said, “If a million people would donate $100 a year for 30 to 40 years, you might get a breakthrough for ALS. These flash-in-the pan things that will go away after a few months will not help ALS in the long run. Researchers need dependable [year in and year out] money.” He added, “Right now we are leaving about half of the good ideas on the table for lack of resources.”
Here is a little Jewlicious secret: All those private donations from health related funds pale when compared to funding from the U.S. federal government. The U.S. National Institutes of Health allocate $30 billion a year for health and medical research. This is about six times more than the funds raised by charities (before their admin expenses).
If you want to support ALS, it is better to call your Congressman than dump some ice water on your head. In 2010, the NIH provided $59 million to ALS research projects. Keep in mind that the CDC says that 12,000 Americans currently have ALS. This compares to 5.2 million with Alzheimer’s and 25.8 million with a form of diabetes. In the past three years, overall NIH funding has dropped over 30%. Also, the 2013 federal sequester cut the overall NIH budget by 5%. Only 16% of research proposals to the NIH get funded; this compares to 30 percent a decade ago.
Is it good for the Jews.
Let’s go a little deeper. Most people know ALS as Lou Gehrig’s disease, and not even its more formal name: amyotrophic lateral sclerosis.
But fewer and fewer people follow baseball and know who Lou Gehrig was. The organization recently changed its logo and downplays “Lou Gehrig,” even though it received several hundred thousand dollars this Summer from Major League Baseball on the anniversary of Gehrig’s famous speech. Though diminishing, there remains a lot of brand equity in the Gehrig name. For the past two years, the ALS Association has been working to rebrand the disease, and like “ED,” “IBS,” “MS,” and “MD,” to just have it called an easier “ALS.”
The same may hold true for Jewish philanthropies.
Just as Lou Gehrig may not vibrate for younger Americans, the branding and messages of Jewish philanthropies may ring hollow to younger Jews. I am not saying the UJA/UJC and federations need to have a matzo ball challenge, but they need to reach out to new, younger donors via social media, and they need to crowdsource some new themes that speak to new donors.