As you scroll through your news feed in Facebook or through the tweets of those you follow you might have noticed short videos of people pouring ice water over themselves or #icebucketchallenge or both. Prank? Latest “social media thing”? Charity fundraiser? A little bit of all three, but if the last one surprised you, you’re not alone.
The charity in question is the ALS Association. ALS stands for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. It’s a motor neuron disease that progressively affects nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord. Those cells break down and die. There is no known cure, nor is there even an effective treatment. You’ve heard of the disease before. It’s popularly known as “Lou Gehrig’s disease,” not just because the real name is difficult to pronounce or remember, but because the man most associated with this disease was so loved.
Both the disease and the man who lent it his name are singular indeed. Lou Gehrig won the World Series 6 times, was an All-Star 7 times, and was the first Major League Baseball player to have his number retired, all in addition to several hatful’s of records. His amazing form and ability suffered tremendously from the disease, and his abilities degenerated in front of an entire nation who truly loved him. He was forced to retire from the game and died two years later, in 1941.
It is quite fitting, then, that ALS, a disease that doesn’t have the charisma of “Susan G. Komen for the Cure” or the star power of the (Red) AIDS campaign, would get a boost in awareness and research funding from a sports star. Pete Frates, who was a former Boston College baseball star and widely tipped to be a future Boston Red Sox player, was struck with the disease and came up with the ice bucket challenge in which you pour ice water over yourself and donate $10 to the ALS Association, while nominating others to do so as well, or decline and donate $100 for not having to do so.
President Obama is one of those who have taken the less icy path to supporting the research for the cure for this disease, and we can’t say we blame him! Frates famously told his doctor that he would raise $1B to help find a cure, and while the $6M raised in the last two weeks alone is a drop in the proverbial (ice) bucket, it represents the most significant spike in donations the charity has ever seen.
Why has this prank with a charitable twist gone viral? For the same reason anything goes viral: it’s simple, people get it, and there’s a feel good factor (well, perhaps after the shivers wear off). The ice-bucket challenge might not have succeeded in winter, but it’s definitely taken off this summer!
The question facing the ALS Association, which is now relatively flush with cash – having received many times its normal funding, in the millions of dollars, than it normally does – is not so much what to do with the money – they want to put it towards research, but rather, how to keep the momentum up. They know another gimmick won’t take and indeed, might turn the population off. Valerie Estess, a co-founder of Project ALS, an NYC-based nonprofit, has said, “I just hope that the momentum continues.”
But to keep the disease, its awareness, and hope for a cure alive, its champions will need to do more than hope. They will need to make their next act as singular as Lou Gehrig and Pete Frates themselves.
For now, we’ll enjoy watching our loved ones (and Bill Gates) get drenched.