Ice-cold bucket of water turns out to be a red-hot fundraising idea

Laura Berman

A rare and devastating neuromuscular disease has become a summer fad, as everyone from Bill Gates to Ben Affleck in a Detroit T-shirt to my 13-year-old daughter have responded to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

The combination of a funny stunt, August weather and social media have converged in a viral dunking that peaked over the weekend, when even Gov. Rick Snyder was doused with a bucket of ice water. The governor’s expression of frosty horror would be memorable, even if it didn’t raise money or awareness.

More likely, it did both. The challenge — send $100 for ALS research or dump a bucket of icy water on your head — has been wildly, crazily effective. It’s also been ad hoc: No philanthropy consultant or advertising agency prompted the campaign, which gained legs when Pete Frates, a former Boston ballplayer who has ALS, released his own video and challenged “Today” show host Matt Lauer — the first of many celebrity ice-bathers.

On Monday, the ALS Association said it had raised more than $15 million and brought in 357,000 new donors since July 29, when Frates, 29, issued the challenge that went viral. (The organization took in $1.2 million in the same period last year.)

Dollars makes sense. But is awareness an important commodity? Is there any potential value to ALS victims and their families when teenagers are shooting videos as an alternative to contributing money?

The campaign turns out to be a surprisingly convincing demonstration of how a concept as vague as “awareness” can translate into concrete action and millions of dollars for research. Andy Doctoroff, a Huntington Woods lawyer whose father, the late appeals court Judge Martin Doctoroff, died from ALS, received the challenge over the weekend as he was bailing out his flooded basement.

“It’s a way of engaging people because it’s hilarious,” he says of the campaign. “It’s an incredibly effective way to direct attention to ALS.”

He also praises “the wonderful contrast between the utterly depressing nature of the disease and the life-affirming nature of the challenge.” The irreverence and sheer goofiness is uplifting, a way to bring people together even if it’s only for a 20-second video and a moment of goodwill.

At ALS of Michigan, which is not affiliated with the national ALS Association, the campaign has been “phenomenal,” says Sue Burstein-Kahn, executive director. “For us, it really started last week,” she said, raising $10,000 that began streaming in. ( “It’s been hard for us to keep up with the number of donations.”

Some critics suggest the campaign is irrational, diverting attention from other charities, and singling out ALS for no particular reason. But it turns out that we’re no more rational about charity than we are about politics or religion: We give from the gut.

Peter Remington, a Detroit-based philanthropic consultant, says that creativity is a key to success for charities because “it’s all about mission and passion.” Charity isn’t science: It’s almost always prompted by emotion or personal ties.

In the closing weeks of summer, a bucket of ice water has become a unifying way to express caring for those who suffer from a fatal disease and their fight for a cure. It has opened hearts and wallets.

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