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When Charlie Sheen is the voice of reason and responsibility, you know things have gotten weird.

On Monday, a video emerged of Mr. Sheen taking part in the "ice bucket challenge" – an online sensation that began in Boston and has been spreading globally among celebrities and civilians alike. The challenge calls out people to dump a bucket of ice water over their heads in an effort to raise awareness for a debilitating disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also known as Lou Gehrig's disease. Mr. Sheen, however, implicitly criticized those who have been enacting one variation that allows them to do the prank in lieu of donating to an ALS-related charity.

The actor who has become known for strange public behaviour declined to jump on the bandwagon. Instead of water, he dumped a bucket of money on his head – $10,000, he claimed, that he would donate – "because let's face it, ice is going to melt, but this money is going to actually help people," he said in the video.

The campaign has been criticized for "slacktivism," social media petitions and stunts that allow people to feel good about getting involved with a cause without actually doing anything. But as it turns out, that critique, and Mr. Sheen's contribution to the tsk-tsking, weren't necessary. The ice bucket challenge has actually pushed people into action. And it provides a lesson to other charities trying to market themselves with few resources in a digital age.

The donations are unlike anything the ALS Society of Canada has seen before. Due to overwhelming traffic, it has taken down its regular website and directed all visitors to its Ice Bucket Challenge page. While the campaign started in the United States, Canadian participants helped to direct roughly $400,000 in donations to the organization (and its provincial affiliates) on Tuesday alone. In total, the campaign has raised almost $800,000. As a comparison, in the entire summer period last year, "we're talking just thousands of dollars," said Interim CEO Tammy Moore.

In the U.S., the numbers are massive: $31.5-million (U.S.) in donations compared with just $1.9-million in the same period – July 29 to Aug. 20 – last year.

"It's not just a stunt. People are opening their wallets, and they're making themselves aware," Ms. Moore said. What's more, she believes the controversy around slacktivism has helped. People are called out if they don't mention the cause in their videos, or do not donate. It's started a conversation.

According to Facebook Inc., more than 28 million people have either posted content, commented on or liked others' posts about the challenge, and 2.4 million videos related to the campaign have been shared on the social network globally.

Before the campaign, the organization struggled with branding ALS, Ms. Moore said. Its full name is too long for many to remember, and awareness of the disease is minimal compared with cancer or heart disease.

"This is giving a name to it," she said.

That is a huge opportunity for all charitable organizations: Social media have levelled the playing field for the thousands of groups working on a shoestring – not to mention for larger charities that would prefer to direct a smaller portion of donation dollars to advertising themselves.

"In this country, there are 86,000 charities," said Marina Glogovac, CEO of CanadaHelps, which helps charities process online donations. Many of its clients are small to medium-sized organizations. "There is an enormous long tail of small charities that don't have the marketing budgets, or the know-how, and they're the ones that could benefit the most from social media marketing."

It's also a hugely important vehicle for connecting with younger people, who are not as involved in charitable giving as older generations. People born between 1981 and 1995 account for just 15 per cent of total giving in Canada, according to a study released last year. Far more than other generations, those younger people say that they prefer to volunteer, spread the word or fundraise rather than writing big cheques.

That sense of participation is partly what made the ice bucket challenge so popular.

"This was fun, it was relatively easy to do, and it had a bit of naughtiness to it. Those are terrific elements for something that people will pass along," said David Hessekiel, president of the Rye, N.Y.-based Peer-to-Peer Professional Forum, which counsels non-profits on how to effectively engage people in fundraising through activities among peers, often online.

"There are two things we know motivate people to action: Peer opinions and the pursuit of unique experiences," said Mark Sutton, chief revenue officer for Washington, D.C.-based FrontStream, which offers online payment processing for businesses and charities. (FrontStream's Toronto office has been working with ALS Canada to help them take advantage of the publicity.) "The Ice Bucket Challenge offers both."

People pouring buckets of ice over their heads is also funny, and unexpectedly joyful – it's an easy way in for people who might not otherwise be convinced to Google ALS and read up on such a brutal disease.

Facebook is the No. 1 referrer to fundraising and donation pages online in North America, according to a study by Artez Interactive, a division of FrontStream focused on charitable giving. The social network accounts for 28 per cent of referrals.

Even beyond friends' appeals for fundraising drives, charities are learning that social media have the potential to get the attention of younger people. In 2012, for example, the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada ran an awareness campaign for CPR training. It was targeted at people under 35, many of whom are not trained.

In a video released on YouTube, a zombie horde chases a woman in post-apocalyptic Toronto. Panicked, the woman suffers a heart attack. So the zombies perform CPR – complete with step-by-step instructions – and when the woman is revived, with blood flowing to her precious brains once more, they devour her.

The video received 1.5 million views, and 16,000 people have gone through training as a result of the campaign. What's more, it brought in money: HSF links more than $1-million in donations to the widespread attention the video received.

"It opened our eyes in terms of how effective social media could be," said chief marketing officer Geoff Craig. "[Young people] are going to be the givers of the future. So we have to figure out how to engage with them today."

The campaign

What it's all about
Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), sometimes known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a neurological disease that attacks the nerve cells we use to control our muscles. It can start with tightness or weakness in certain muscles, and eventually progresses until a person loses the ability to walk, speak, swallow and even breathe. While these functions deteriorate, the disease leaves cognitive functions mostly intact: a person with ALS is aware of what is happening to them. There is no cure.

ALS in Canada
3,000: the rough number of people currently living with ALS in Canada.
1,000: the estimated number who will be diagnosed in Canada this year; roughly the same number of people will die from the disease this year.
90 per cent: the proportion of ALS cases where there is no hereditary link to the disease. ALS is indiscriminate, and strikes regardless of age, ethnicity, gender – or family history.
Source: ALS Society of Canada

Where it's happening
Top countries by participation in the ice bucket challenge, according to Facebook:

1. United States
2. Australia
3. New Zealand
4. Canada
5. Mexico
6. Brazil
7. Germany
8. Philippines
9. Puerto Rico
10. India

Some of the celebrities who have taken the challenge
George W. Bush
Justin Bieber
Oprah Winfrey
LeBron James
Chris Pratt
Lady Gaga
Cristiano Ronaldo

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