Some thoughts on charity challenges

Air bubbles frozen in Antarctic ice

Air bubbles frozen in Antarctic ice

In recent weeks our social media news feeds have filled up with the infamous ice bucket challenge, and many of us have been nominated and taken up the challenge. Some have done so willingly and others have perhaps bowed to peer-pressure.

It certainly serves to prove to power of the viral campaign over social media and as I scanned through various charity pages the other day it is certainly raising money for a number of high profile charities, even assuming that there will be some who do not make the suggested donations.

Having had a brief hunt around the web, I have learned to my surprise that the challenge’s origins are unknown, but it was most famously taken up in the US to raise awareness of the ALS/MND (Motor Neurone Disease). As with all things viral it has grown and adapted and has been taken up by a number of charities and causes, with people taking the challenge nominating their chosen charities as they pass the challenge on.  It has been taken up by a wide demographic including young and old, fit and unfit, celebrities and politicians. It’s accessible, easy, and fun (?) and anyone can do it.

For me though, it has raised some questions and given me pause for thought.

Why do we need to throw, or have thrown a bucket of ice water over our heads to make us aware of a cause and donate to charity? Surely, it is part of our moral and humane responsibility to be charitable?

Will the taking part in this challenge result in an individual taking a more active role in charitable activity and giving: maybe, maybe not.

Why are we wasting gallons of good water, when there are those in the world who have little or no water?

For those of us living relatively comfortable lives in the first world there are many appeals to our altruism: disaster appeals, high profile campaigns, charity telesales, individual fundraisers, ‘chuggers’ (charity muggers) on the street, collections cans. Is there a risk that this all creates too much noise and that we become irritated by it or numb to it? Do we ignore it or do we become aware and determine to do what we can? And if we decide to do what we can, what do we do, who do we help?

For me it is a ‘no brainer’. I have always been acutely aware of how privileged I am: I think this is part nature, but also down to my parents and my education. I volunteer and give my time and skills for free, I donate and I fundraise.  Many people I know do likewise, but I also know people who do nothing.  It was my desire to raise money for the hospital ward where Alasdair was treated for Non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma that got me into running. Since then I have raised £22.5k for a number of charities, and I take pride in that; it is the least I can do. Whilst in my Just Giving account a few days I noticed that I had donated just over £9.7k in the last 10 years! I was shocked. That does not include cash donations and donations made via other sites. If anyone had asked me how much I thought I had donated over that period I would have probably said about £4k tops.

One of the reasons I volunteer and give my professional time for free is because I am unable to give more money and feel that I want and need to do more. We are ‘comfortable’. We do not struggle financially, although like everyone we have constraints and times when the belts have to be drawn in, and we have to prioritise. If it comes to making a donation or buying one less take-away or a couple less bottles of wine, walk or take the train instead of that taxi, the donation wins, hands down.

I cannot give to all causes, so, like many people, I have criteria: I try as far as possible to always support friends’ fundraising, thereafter, I give money to charities that mean something to me or have a relevance to me; and there will be a number of appeals or high profile fundraising appeals that I will support. In terms of the charities that I fundraise for it is important to me that they have personal relevance and I often opt to raise funds for smaller, less well known charities: less ‘sexy’ charities. I also ensure that the money I raise goes to specific projects.

My running is my main vehicle for fundraising. Not all events that I participate in are fundraisers. Sometimes I like to go out there are just run for the pleasure of it and not have the added pressure of feeling that I have to perform at a certain level to justify the sponsorship.  (The why’s and wherefore’s of running for charity or not are perhaps best covered in a separate post). When I do use my running to fundraise I try to ensure that it involves an appropriate level of challenge to justify the target I set and the support and donations.

At times I get frustrated when donations are slow to come in and have to remind myself that, just like me, people have priorities and criteria. I have to understand that they may not want to support this particular charity or feel that this particular challenge is not one that appeals, or that they have already supported me in a previous event.

One friend often makes his sponsorship conditional on performance (or an aspect of performance). Whilst this can be frustrating and can result in a self-imposed pressure, I know that it makes the donation worthwhile for both of us. It is not that he is in any way uncharitable, and I greatly respect and admire the work that he does with the Samaritans. Another person I know gives almost too generously, but he admits that, his donations to my fundraising are pretty much the only ones he makes. Yet another will never donate before an event as they do not want to in any pressurise me into pushing myself to beyond breaking simply for the donations. There have been those who will not donate towards the NHS as they believe it should not need supplementary funding; those who do not believe in sponsoring someone to do what they enjoy, have fun. I respect their decisions and views.

Running a marathon and 100km a day later in Antarctica was tough. I completed the challenge comprehensively and tend to make light of how hard it actually was. Running a marathon at an altitude of 14.5k feet next to a volcano in the Atacama Desert will be incredibly hard for me. Running 5 marathons including an ultra and a multi day event in 5.5 months in 2010 was tough. Yes, I enjoy running, and yes, in some strange masochistic way I enjoy the challenge of pushing myself to and beyond the limits of my physicality; but in one sense, this is the least I can do. I want people to donate and I want to help those who often suffer far more. Any attention that I get for my endeavours I use to try and increase awareness of the cause that I am fundraising for.

So, to return the ice bucket challenge: is what I do so different? I am challenging myself, raising awareness and asking for donations: perhaps not so different. Not going viral, not so ‘easy’. But then again for some that bucket of icy water is a big challenge and challenge enough.  I knew that sooner or later I would be nominated, and when it came, it did not come from where I expected which took me a little by surprise (reasons for which I will not go into here).  My original intention if nominated was to not do the challenge, pay the forfeit donation and not nominate others, but for some indiscernible reason I paused for thought. Alasdair pointed out that there was no compulsion here; it was plain for all to see that I do a lot of charitable work.

I decided to put it in the hands of chance, and stated that if a specified level of donations were made to my current fundraising for Alzheimer Scotland, then I would do the challenge and dependant on the amount I might do the challenge naked. It was a gamble and a gamble based on my assumption that there were so many ice bucket challenges being done that people would not want, or would not be able to donate more. I was wrong, and I did my challenge naked. Whilst standing in my back garden naked (modesty protected by a strategically placed arm and ‘sign’ with my JustTextGiving details), filming Alasdair tipping the water over me was not a problem I did hesitate before posting the film.

Why? Well, apart from the obvious overcoming body issues and a feeling of public vulnerability somewhere deep down inside me I still felt uncomfortable with the challenge. I did post the video, albeit for a limited time. I think I have figured out why I am uncomfortable. It is partly the peer-pressure element, and the fact that is an ‘enforced’ donation. It is not ‘freely’ given and there is no thought process or decision making, although there is the opportunity to highlight your own charity/cause in the on-going nomination process. But then it puts undue pressure on the nominee to donate to a charity that they may not have otherwise chosen. It is almost like those chain emails that threaten bad things if they are not passed on. Of course, in reality there is no compulsion. The nominations can be ignored and there will be no consequences.

Perhaps I am over analysing, but I feel that it is important that we all think about our charitable activity and freely choose what we do or do not do. When we choose freely it has much more feeling and relevance.

Currently, I am raising funds for Alzheimer Scotland. I have chosen to do this because this terrible and degenerative disease affects my family and the families of friends; but also because I believe that we should not turn away from mental health issues which can often take us out of our comfort zone.