On the Ice Bucket Challenge and Charity

A few weeks ago marked the second anniversary of the ALS Association’s “Ice Bucket Challenge,” a brilliant fundraising drive that’s success is without precedent and I have a feeling will probably never be repeated. To celebrate, the ALSA announced that they had discovered a gene that could be associated with the disease using the funds generated by the Challenge. Most people applauded, but a few pointed out (justifiably) that it was not the monumental breakthrough that everyone had hoped for. The disease has not been cured, but we do understand it a bit better, now.

Then there was this: “The ice bucket challenge’s scientific success restored my faith in fundraising.” I have been trying to keep my mouth shut about this article for a month now, but I can’t. To say it infuriates me puts it mildly.

While the author (Mary Valle) concludes that the Challenge was a clever and deserved success, she spends a lot of the article griping that “overblown, internet-BS game[s] parading as a fundraiser[s]” can make people “feel like money keeps getting shoveled in to the charity-industrial complex with very little in the way of progress coming out.”

What bothers me is that expecting organizations to deliver miracles because the world suddenly cared for a few moments about a relatively unknown disease is both preposterous and damaging. It ignores the great things that institutions like the ALS Association do every day that we, as a society, take for granted, and that are life-changing to those who need them.

The ALS Association doesn’t just fund research. They have chapters in every state that provide services to people with ALS and their families including support groups, service referral, advocacy, loans to buy equipment, and more. This is not sexy work, but it is absolutely necessary.

Taking this a bit further, nonprofits like ALSA provide services that address problems that fall through the cracks — the ones neither the public or private sectors deal with.

Take Code Savvy, for example. Their work has a pretty simple premise: coding is a necessary skill in today’s workforce and will only continue to grow in importance over the coming years. Schools are not teaching it (kids at some Minneapolis high schools are only allowed to use their computer lab twice a week because there are too many students and too few computers for crying out loud) for want of resources. No for-profit company could implement a mass-education program that would train a huge chunk of the population in this skill cost-effectively, let alone earn a buck in the end.

So, Code Savvy steps in to fix an never-ending problem. Most of what they and other nonprofits do is the day-to-day drudgery of the Necessary.

Nonprofits are perpetually in a quandary. The folks who work at nonprofits are there because they believe there is an unprofitable need that has to be addressed, but at the same time that their organization should not exist in the first place. It’s built into the nonprofit DNA in the form of the universal “Vision Statement” that says what the world should look like when their work is finally complete.

As a friend of mine put it, if you work at a nonprofit, you should always be trying to work yourself out of a job.

I have spent my (admittedly short) working life at nonprofits. It has rarely occurred to me that I could find a job in the for-profit sector that would appeal to me, though I have often considered pursuing work in local government. I do not want to earn a monthly pay check — I want to serve. I strive to live up to the ideal that I am not working for myself and my family alone, but for the betterment of others. A lot of that kind of work is both endless and thankless, but essential. Nonprofits will do it until we have policy solutions and government departments dedicated to solving the problem.

If you think a six million dollar, one-time infusion of cash into a disease that has been known about for decades will result in a cure you are delusional. If you decided to become a sustaining donor, on the other hand, that is commendable, because you understand that there are some things that do not go away easily or quickly. That is where I agree with folks who say you cannot throw money at a problem. You can, however, convince society that an issue is worthy of collective action and then to strategically invest time and resources into its solution.

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Filed under Nonprofiteers, Progressivism, Rant, Things That Happen, Uncategorized

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