The ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ Has Raised More Than $15 Million For A Rare Disease

CREDIT: AP Photo/Elise Amendola

Two women get doused during the ice bucket challenge in Boston's Copley Square

The so-called “ice bucket challenge” — the Internet sensation that requires people to either dump a bucket of ice water over their head, or donate money to fight ALS, or both — raised $15.6 million for the ALS Association between July 29 and August 18, the nonprofit group announced on Monday. During the same time period last year, the organization raised a much smaller sum of $1.8 million.

“The ALS Association is extremely grateful for the generosity of these donors, and for the actions of several people who initiated and spread this incredible viral effort,” the organization said in a statement on its website.

Everyone from Bill Gates to Oprah Winfrey to LeBron James has posted a video of themselves completing the challenge; even President Obama has been nominated to get in on the action, although he hasn’t yet indicated whether he’ll participate. And celebrities aren’t the only ones. Between June 1 and August 13, people have shared more than 1.2 million “ice bucket” videos on Facebook. The challenge has been mentioned more than 2.2 million times on Twitter since the end of July.

The “ice bucket challenge” didn’t used to be specifically tied to ALS, a rare and fatal neurodegenerative condition that’s commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. It was initially about either dousing yourself with ice water or donating money to any charity of your choice. But after Chris Kennedy, a golfer in Florida, was nominated to complete the challenge, he decided to raise money for ALS because one of his relatives has it. Soon, ice bucket videos began to circulate among the community of people afflicted with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, posted under the hashtag #StrikeOutALS — and that’s when the campaign really started to take off.

The campaign has inspired thousands of people to give generously to a cause they’ve never supported before. According to the ALS Assocation, 307,598 of the donations it has received in over the past three weeks have come from new donors. But now that so much money has been raised for ALS — a disease that afflicts an estimated 12,000 Americans, according to the CDC, and often kills people within just three years of diagnosis — what exactly will those funds go toward?

“This amount of money… it opens up new opportunities that were previously unfathomable,” Carrie Munk, the spokesperson for the ALS Association, said in a recent interview with Forbes. Because ALS affects relatively few people in the United States, it’s what’s known as an “orphan disease,” which means that developing potential treatments or cures isn’t a high priority for the pharmaceutical industry because they won’t be very profitable. Much of the money will likely go toward that underfunded research, although Munk said the group is still assessing exactly how to best use it.

The challenge isn’t without its controversies. Several critics have argued that the outpouring of support for ALS will dry up philanthropic donations toward other important causes, including medical conditions that impact a greater number of people. Others have argued that the viral nature of the campaign — posting a public video on social media sites — is narcissistic. After all, you don’t need an ice bucket to decide to donate to charity.

Nonetheless, for better or for worse, this type of “cause marketing” is one of the most popular strategies to boost philanthropy. The most successful cause marketing campaigns are typically driven by big corporations like General Mills, American Express, and Proctor & Gamble. In 2012, the biggest cause marketing drives raised $358 million for charity. Other nonprofits are now considering launching their own versions of the “ice bucket challenge,” but they acknowledge it will probably be hard to replicate.