Are you familiar with the Cold Water Challenge?
If you're regularly on Facebook, at this point you may very well be. If not, just know the premise is this: You douse yourself with a bucket full of cold water (or submerge yourself fully in a body of cold water), record the act, and post it to Facebook. And you call out a few of your friends to do the same. The price if they don't? They make a donation to charity.
I first saw the challenge in April, when my daughter and her friends jumped on the viral bandwagon. I watched as middle-schooler after middle-schooler drenched themselves, with often-entertaining results. The trend continues to wash over social media today as the likes of media celebrities (Matt Lauer and Martha Stewart), professional golfers (Michelle Wie, Stacy Lewis, Ian Poulter and Greg Norman), and country stars (Scotty McCreery) get wet.
Sounds like an innocuous exercise, if a slightly narcissistic one, with some laudable benefit to nonprofits.
But upon closer examination, that assessment is probably naïve.
First, it must be noted that a number of deaths and drownings have been reported as people try out various versions of the challenge. Two weeks ago in Germany, one man reportedly was killed and five others were injured when a piece of construction equipment fell over before it could pour its 2,000 liters of water on challenge participants standing nearby.
As for the benefit to nonprofits, well, that's a little complicated, too. According to the national ALS Association, the challenge began as one Massachusetts man's idea to help fundraise for organizations fighting amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig's Disease. Many people today continue to do it for ALS research, and the impact on some of those groups will probably prove to be substantial.
But the challenge has taken on another life, too, with thousands of people supposedly doing it "for charity," generically. So, I sent emails asking a handful of local organizations if they had seen any donations as a result of the challenge. Turns out none had. In fact, as of early this month administrators with Goodwill Industries, TESSA, CASA of the Pikes Peak Region, the Community Partnership for Child Development, Greccio Housing and Urban Peak were all unaware of the challenge.
When told of the concept, they responded with varied reactions.
In the case of CASA, a group that advocates for at-risk children, benefiting from a stunt that even has a minuscule chance of harming young people doesn't make sense. Tracy Sellars, PR and communications director for the organization, wrote that even though it seems like people are just having fun when they're doing the challenge, it would not be a good fit.
Other organizations, meanwhile, were more open to the potential money.
Lee Patke, Greccio executive director, wrote in an email that he prefers to gain donations from opportunities that engage people with the group's mission of providing safe, stable and affordable housing. But "[h]aving said that, I wouldn't turn the donation away (unless it was the result of something potentially dangerous or contrary to our core values)."
That local nonprofits I contacted have seen no benefit is disappointing, but not surprising. The premise is all wrong. We live in a selfie society; not many people would miss the chance to post a video that would surely garner likes from friends. A quick search of "cold water challenge" on YouTube, where so many of the videos are posted, returns nearly 300,000 results. "Ice water challenge" lands more than 300,000.
Maybe there's a way we can do this that will feed our egos and support our community. Let's consider a small change to the challenge: Rather than being forced to make a donation for not playing along, you should make a donation when you, and the friends you call out, complete the challenge.
Even if the tweens promise just $5 when their friends follow through — simply and safely, ideally without the use of construction equipment — they can learn an early lesson in philanthropy. If the YouTube search is an accurate indicator of the number of people accepting the challenge, we're talking about millions of dollars that could find its way to charity.
It could be a win-win.