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Will the #ALSicebucketchallenge change how Canadians donate?

Toronto Mayor Ford prepares to do the ALS ice-bucket challenge.

YouTube screen shot

What drives us to donate to a specific cause can often be related to a publicized tragedy or a personal experience - but now more than ever before, trends on Twitter and Facebook inform our charitable decisions.

Look no further than the viral spread of the ALS ice bucket challenge, where participants dump ice water on their heads and task others on social media to do the same or to donate instead. The viral craze keeps gaining steam and has raised more than $2-million in Canada in less than a month (by comparison, ALS walks raised $3.5-million in all of 2013).

Until late last month, the ice bucket challenge existed for months on the Internet as a silly social media dare with no connection to any charity. Then, on July 29th, a Boston man with ALS filmed himself dumping ice on his head, and challenged viewers to do the same or give to ALS research. Before that moment, ALS was a tiny voice in the loud world of big attention-grabbing causes like breast cancer and AIDS.

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Celebrities everywhere have taken part and at Facebook's most recent count, more than 2. 4 million ice bucket videos had been posted worldwide in support of ALS, a paralyzing, fatal disease with a maximum five-year life expectancy. Today, Canada ranks fourth on the social network's estimate of most participants per country.

Though the challenge has come under much criticism (including from this writer), the monetary success to ALS charities is undeniable. But with Canadians now giving at such rapid speed to this cause, other charities are bound to lose out on donations, says Ken Wyman, a philanthropy expert, professor of fundraising management at Toronto's Humber College and a self-proclaimed skeptic of "ridiculous challenges that don't relate to the cause."

While the numbers from ALS seem to relay that Canadians are giving more, Wyman says the patterns of charity will remain constant. "We as a nation tend to give roughly the same amount ever year," he says, so an increase to ALS means other charities will likely lose out. "The size of the pie generally stays the same and where it gets distributed changes depending on the trends."

What's worrisome about social media fads like the ALS ice bucket challenge, he says, is that they aren't necessarily creating new, regular donors - the key to long-term success for charities.

Instead of focusing on a one-hit wonder, the key to any long-term charity success is garnering committed supporters who agree to regular - and ideally automated - withdrawals. He points to Movember as a success story, because it sees new and recurring participants every year.

Then there's the fleeting nature of the "awareness" that comes with fads like this one. "Awareness - what does the actually mean? We can be aware of something today and then not aware tomorrow, like passing a billboard on the highway," he says. "Do you remember Julyna?" he asks, of the cervical cancer campaign that was momentarily trendy a few years ago. "Right - neither does anyone else."

Many of the people who partake in viral challenges aren't learning about the cause, and some are using the trend for personal gain: "Celebrities who conspicuously give to charity are doing so to increase their popularity," he says. "And when Rob Ford calls out that he's challenging others - you'll notice he didn't challenge the other mayoral candidates, but he goes up a level to the provincial level of politicians - to show he's in a different class."

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The ALS charities may have "won the lottery," but the key now is to use that windfall as an investment, so the money doesn't dry up and the success isn't a "flash in the pan." That can often be the case with charities that deal with sudden tragedies that captivate the public attention, like Médecins Sans Frontières and the Canadian Red Cross. According to the Association of Fundraising Professionals at the Toronto Congress, these organizations see a surge in donations after a sudden disaster but retain less than two per cent of their donors, after the "story of the moment" passes.

ALS Canada would do well to give the bucket trend legs, Wyman recommends, by transforming it into an annual frosh week donation challenge, similar to the successful Shinerama campaigns for cystic fibrosis across Canadian campuses.

But where ALS Canada is concerned, the new, sudden influx of donors isn't a temporary gain. The organization, which plans on extending the cold-water challenge to Canadian corporations in the coming weeks, is optimistic. "We're seeing more and more new donors ask how they can be regular, monthly supporters, which is just amazing," says the organization's interim CEO Tammy Moore in Toronto.

As for those who are getting the message muddled, Moore says more people are now demanding an awareness element - criticizing participants who are doing the challenge wrong. "If someone posts a video without mentioning ALS in their videos and not mentioning donations, they are going to get slammed."

Where Moore is perhaps most excited is the spotlight she now has with policy makers: "There are no government resources given to this disease specifically," she says, adding that ALS Canada has been asking for changes in federal policies towards a compassionate care benefit for families who are dealing with the ravages of the disease.

"Where we weren't able to get meetings with cabinet ministers before, those same people are now doing the ice bucket challenge and posting it to their social media accounts," she laughs. "So now they know."

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Still, social media as a long-term charitable vehicle has a ways to go, says Wyman. "The vast majority of donations in Canada still come through postal mail, because... you have to do something with that piece of paper physically." But he is slowly seeing organic social media trends becoming a force in the future of fundraising: "We want to spend the least amount of money to gain the most to change the world."

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