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Fundraising and awareness social memes: up for grabs?

The #icebucketchallenge is the perfect internet meme. No surprise it’s gone viral, with celebrities and non-celebs getting in on the act. Like #nomakeupselfie before it, there’s a can’t-fail blend of altruism, fun and minor self-sacrifice.

The stunt was created to raise awareness of the fatal neurodegenerative disease ALS, and has done wonders for the ALS Association in the US, increasing both its profile and its coffers. A rollcall of A-listers from Mark Zuckerberg to Justin Timberlake and Oprah Winfrey have posted videos of themselves pouring a bucket of ice-water over their heads.

(As proof that it can take its place among the charity social meme pantheon, there’s even been the inevitable social media backlash.)

People get ALS in the UK too: here it’s called motor neurone disease (MND), and it kills five people every day. The fight against MND/ALS is a global one, and so the UK-based MND Association has begun to reap the benefits of the challenge, getting name-checked by chilly participants. It’s beenencouraging people to take part through its own digital channels, sharing their videos, and has set up a dedicated SMS giving platform.

Until now, you might be forgiven for never having heard of MND. With only 5,000 people living with MND in the UK, awareness is lower than more prevalent conditions like cancer or heart disease. The #icebucketchallenge is a great opportunity to change that, and to increase funds for research into a cure. (Full disclosure: I cut my charity comms teeth working at the MND Association, and know many who have lived with, died from or cared for someone with this devastating disease. It’s also on my client roster.)

So it was disappointing to see a sponsored post by Macmillan Cancer Support – the biggest brand name health charity in the UK – appear on my Facebook feed at the weekend, encouraging me to take part in the #icebucketchallenge for them. Perhaps they’d seen its success for ALS and assumed as there was no ‘ALS’ charity in the UK, it was up for grabs as a fun fundraiser? Or did they make the calculated decision that with a profile and reach so much greater than that of the MND Association (who have only one-tenth of Macmillan’s annual income), they could go ahead and hijack it? I respect Macmillan for their fantastic and important work, and the sector leadership they provide in brand, comms and fundraising. However, on this occasion, their defence that no single charity owns this challenge rings hollow to me.

The bigger question raised is who can stake a claim to an internet meme that links to a social ‘good’? The best memes begin organically – an individual or group separate from a formal non-profit with a crazy idea that goes on to catch fire across the internet. Cancer Research UK raised £8 million from #nomakeupselfie,  despite freely admitting they had nothing to do with its initial spread across social channels. Memes have short lives, and charities have woken up to the fact that you have to act fast to ‘claim’ a viral trend, attaching a donate mechanism, while it’s still capturing the imagination.

But what the #icebucketchallenge shows is that there’s a debate to be had in the sector about the rules of engagement: in a competitive fundraising marketplace, should charities with important causes of their own and the brand clout to rise above the rest have to concern themselves with a meme’s original aims, so long as they can reap the benefits?