Ice bucket do-gooders

What can church leaders learn from Ice Bucket Challenge?

By Mark Wingfield

Americans have heated up the Internet with the Ice Bucket Challenge in the last two weeks.

Unless you’ve just flown in from the Arctic, you know exactly what I’m talking about: The social-media-fueled fundraising phenomenon that’s benefitting research for the disease ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. Individuals or groups are challenged to dump buckets of ice water on their heads while being videotaped, then post said videos on Facebook or Twitter or a website while challenging someone else. It’s really a video chain letter fundraising appeal.

But why has this gone viral? What greater lesson should we learn from this out-of-nowhere success? In just a few weeks, the ALS Association has reported contributions of more than $15 million and has amassed tens of thousands of new donor contacts (the real gold to a development officer). Someone needs to do some scholarly research on the sociology of this movement.

From my humble perspective as a pastor who engages in fundraising, here are a few possible drops from the bucket:

1. People like to be challenged. Something in human nature thrives on a challenge, a double-dog dare. The surest way to get most people to do something is to say you think they won’t do it, that they don’t have the courage. If, in fact, the challenge is something that is doable even though awkward, the chance of compliance is higher. The only tools needed for the Ice Bucket Challenge are a bucket, ice water and a cell phone. Perhaps we church leaders too often are afraid to challenge people to do the very things we know they are capable of doing because we’re afraid they’ll think we’re pushing too hard.

oprah ice buckt2. People will do much stupider stuff than you ever imagined — and videotape it. If you’ve spent much time on Facebook, you already knew this. But the Ice Bucket Challenge has driven the point home in a chilling way. Bill Gates took the challenge and posted a video, for goodness’ sake. I’ve seen videos come across my Facebook feed of people doing the chilly dance who I can’t imagine being so extroverted in real life. Perhaps we church leaders too often fail to engage people because of lack of a creative ask, or because we wrongly fear making people feel awkward.

3. People want to be generous when given an easy way to do so. Yes, it’s true that this fundraising effort will prove to be a drop in the bucket. It’s a one-time fad. Even though it is not a sustainable fundraising model, we see in these waters that money can flow to charitable causes when peer pressure kicks in and when a simple path of response is given. Consider that the vast majority of those donating to the ALS Association likely never would have been donors to this unique cause otherwise. And yet, given a challenge, they have jumped in. Perhaps we church leaders underestimate the power of mass appeal. Few organizations raise money without asking for it.

4. There’s a dark side to every social media movement, even this one. Maybe you’ve been gratefully dodging the Ice Bucket Challenge. But maybe, just maybe, you’ve secretly been wishing someone would issue the challenge to you — and no one has. The dark side to social movements like this is that what is joyous fun for many merely reinforces the low self-esteem of others. For some, not being called out is like being the last person chosen for a team in junior high gym class. Perhaps we church leaders need a reminder that it takes intentionality to make all people feel welcome, even when others around them are having a great time.

5. Cooperation still works. The biggest take-away from the Ice Bucket Challenge is something Baptists have known for a long time: Together, we can do so much more than any of us can do alone. That $15 million that already has flowed into the ALS Association has come mainly in $10, $35 and $100 contributions. Very few of the association’s new donors have the capacity to give a $1 million gift. But tens of thousands of people have demonstrated the capacity to give smaller gifts. This is the way the church works, when things are at their best. Perhaps we church leaders need to use the Ice Bucket Challenge to illustrate to our congregants once again the power of cooperative giving. Let’s take the plunge.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.