February 26, 2015
Governments at the local, state, and federal level increasingly are competing with charities for private-sector donations using crowdfunding and other individual donor-focused techniques. That's a problem not just for nonprofits, but for all who depend on government to address our shared needs.
Most people would agree that the more each of is willing to do to help those in need, whether with our time or money or both, the better off we all are. That kind of engagement makes for better neighbors and better citizens, both of which are key ingredients of a better society.
So why are we suddenly eager to substitute individual philanthropy for collective public responsibility? Do we really trust people's personal motivations and sometimes impulsive altruism to substitute for government in prioritizing problems and aggregating resources to address those problems over the long haul?
Consider the ALS Association's wildly successful Ice Bucket Challenge, which has raised more than $115 million since its debut in July for the organization's efforts to find a cure for Lou Gehrig's disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) – about six times the association's total revenue from all other sources in 2014. The challenge, which encouraged participants to video themselves having a bucket of ice water poured over their heads and then nominating others to do the same within twenty-four hours or pay a "penalty" in the form of a contribution to the association, also drove worldwide donations for ALS of an additional $100-plus million. No wonder nonprofits and governments at all levels have become interested in crowdfunding and other social-media-driven techniques. Yet, for all its success, the Ice Bucket Challenge also highlights some real issues.
Few would begrudge the ALS Association a penny of those contributions. But one could be forgiven for wondering why the 2.4 million new donors to the organization (triple the number it could boast prior to the challenge) made the decision to contribute.