In what could easily be considered the most viral trend of the summer, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has garnered a lot of attention. ALS, or amyotrophic lateral sclerosis but commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a degenerative neurological disease in which the body’s motor neurons—those that go from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body and allow for movement—are destroyed.
The ALS Association was founded in 1985 with the mission to “lead the fight to treat and cure ALS through global research and nationwide advocacy, while also empowering people with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and their families to live fuller lives by providing them with compassionate care and support.” Expenses for the ALS Association for fiscal year 2014 included research, patient and community services, public and professional education, fundraising and administration, totaling just over $26 million. The ALS Association’s total support and revenue for FYE 2014 was just over $29 million.
Enter the Ice Bucket Challenge. What began as an effort by a few families to raise awareness for this debilitating and lethal disease has exploded into a social media phenomenon, the scope and impact of which are unprecedented. The premise is simple: a participant that has been “challenged” by a friend has twenty four hours to donate $100 to the ALS Association or dump a bucket of ice water on her/his head, video the event, and share it on social media (Facebook, Vine, Instagram, etc.) while challenging three acquaintances to participate. The challenge has been modified somewhat and a wide range of celebrities—including Oprah, Lindsay Lohan, the members of Aerosmith, and Kermit the Frog—have accepted the challenge.
Towson Football Head Coach Rob Ambrose and Towson Athletics staff members Dustin Semonavick and Roy Brown take the Ice Bucket Challenge
However, not everyone has embraced this phenomenon. Critics argue that donations to the ALS Association, while a noble cause, could crowd out research or funding to other diseases that kill more people annually. Furthermore, some question whether much information about the disease is actually being disseminated, or whether participants are simply accepting the challenge in order to post a video on Facebook. Others note that using water for the challenge during intense droughts in the western United States is an unwise allocation of scarce resources. However, the ALS Association encourages “thoughtful” water usage in these areas, either by repurposing the water afterwards or making a donation instead.
Donations from the challenge, both from those that chose not to partake and from those that accepted and donated, have totaled $113.6 million as of September 16, 2014. This is a huge sum of money, especially considering that the typical budget for the ALS Association is about $25 million annually. In an interview about the challenge on the PBS News Hour, ALS Association president Barbara Newhouse stated that the funds raised through the Ice Bucket Challenge would be used for research, advocacy, and care and treatment of those currently fighting the disease.
For economists, the ice bucket challenge phenomenon helps to illustrate a whole array of economic examples such as: externalities (water usage), crowding out (donations declining for other causes), and how to encourage altruistic behavior. This challenge has certainly been a defining moment for a disease that had not been in the spotlight for quite some time. The Ice Bucket Challenge’s far-reaching impacts are unprecedented, and only time will tell how the increased publicity for the ALS Foundation will affect the organization. Though there are differing views on the merits and shortcomings of the challenge, one thing is clear: ice is back with this brand new invention.