The Master’s Pools

We shouldn’t have to dump buckets of ice water over our heads to end ALS.

Lionel Messi. Benedict Cumberbatch. Lebron James. Who wouldn’t want to see them in wet T-shirts?

For a few weeks, the world has been feasting its eyes on celebrities standing awkwardly in front of a camera before a bucket of ice water is dumped on their heads. These viral clips are just a small sample of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge archive. While presidents and puppets have all made appearances, legions of ordinary social media users have also taken the challenge, supplanting cat videos on newsfeeds everywhere.

The rules of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge are surprisingly hard to pin down considering how many people have taken the plunge, but it boils down to a simple dare: either donate $100 for ALS research or have a bucket of ice water dumped on your head. As the campaign has grown to global proportions, the rules have morphed such that most people are both donating and getting wet, then encouraging three friends to do the same.

As marketing, it’s a brilliant use of social media — new iterations, hacks, and interpretations are already on us, and are likely to proliferate for some time. The ALS Association reported that August donations were up more than $75 million over August of last year, and included gifts from over 600,000 new donors. In the straightjacket of American philanthropy, this is unabashed success. Let us not be so vulgar as to ignore the accomplishment of rousing so many people to donate money toward an important goal.

That said, big questions come up after watching Kylie Minogue’s wet T-shirt video a few times over. Where exactly is this money going, and more to the point, why does research money for this devastating disease need be raised through a silly challenge on YouTube?

When I saw my first ALS Ice Bucket video, I got the same knot in my stomach as when public school teacher friends post classroom supply fundraisers on Why must professionals beg for our sympathy and attention in order to properly fund their work? Health and education are social rights that should be amply provided for by a democratic government, not left to the fancies of individual donors.

We’ve been reduced to this reality by a combination of austerity politics and the growing non-profit industrial complex. Underneath their laudable aims and local successes, non-profits are beholden to the methods of funding which allow them to continue their work. It’s nearly impossible to challenge the unequal distribution of power and resources when your initiatives must be made palatable to ruling class philanthropists, whose wealth is a product of exploitation.

Crowd-funding feels like a solid alternative because it changes the class dynamics of traditional philanthropy, but it subjects recipients to the same capricious winds. Whether they’re aging robber barons or techie college freshmen, funders are attracted to shiny new projects with short-term objectives they can watch unfold in a five-minute Kickstarter video. Even a $5 donor wants a straight line between her cash and a positive outcome. That’s not always possible, or desirable.

Audre Lorde famously said that the master’s tools cannot dismantle the master’s house, and the non-profit industry is a textbook example. Their current structure all but eradicates any opportunity to pursue structural change in how resources are allocated, and encourages short-term thinking and zero-sum battles for funding. Long-term political goals, like combating police violence or ending mass incarceration, are left twisting in the wind.

In their foundational essay collection The Revolution Will Not Be Funded, the Incite! Collective explain how non-profits were established as tax shelters for the richest individuals, which had the happy after-effect of funding their philanthropic projects and improving their public image. We need not interpret the elite’s motives entirely cynically in order to critique the system that by design perpetuates paternalism and prioritizes the interests of capitalists. In the collection, Ruth Gilmore cites Jennifer Wolch’s description of the non-profit industry as a “shadow state,” or network of organizations which privatize state functions like funding medical research or putting books in classrooms.

It bears noting that none of this is the fault of the ALS Association or any other non-profit. Rather, it is the status quo that many direct service and social justice organizations endure unnecessarily. With even a little bit of political will, it wouldn’t be hard to give ALS research enough money that we never have to get wet again. The government could give the National Institutes of Health $30 million every month for a year, and it still wouldn’t touch the $3.2 billion allocated to revamp the president’s helicopter fleet, Marine One — none of which resulted in building a single helicopter.

The issue is not what is available, but what is being prioritized. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has been successful not only because of the gimmicky videos, but because no one could reasonably object to funding ALS research. Why not channel that energy into a public funding system, siphoning higher taxes into these important causes? Why not go further and imagine more radical ways to transform medical research in the interests of ordinary people? We could rest assured that a bedrock of a just society is secure.