ALS ice bucket challenge not impacting other charities

BALTIMORE - Christina Pompa already has a whole list of charities she supports.

So when a friend of hers from graduate school challenged her to dump ice cold water over her head to raise awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or donate money to the cause, she said no.

“It’s not that I think ALS isn’t a worthy charity. I knew someone who had ALS, and who died,” said Pompa, of Annapolis. “It’s a horrible, horrible disease. But I didn’t feel I should do something just because everyone else is doing it.”

There are many charities out there, and it’s important to find one whose cause resonates with you, Pompa said.

“This was something that was not a priority for me,” she said of ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The ice bucket challenge became the nation’s hottest craze this summer.

It reportedly began when former college baseball player Pete Frates, who has ALS, dumped a bucket of ice water over his head, posted it online and challenged others to do the same or donate money to the ALS Association.

As of Friday, the ALS Association said it has raised more than $100 million in donations since July 29. During the same time period last year, the association raised $2.8 million.

RELATED: Ice bucket challenge raises millions, awareness for ALS research

“Sometimes things click with the public in a way that is impossible to calculate,” said Arnold Blumberg, an adjunct professor of media and pop culture at the University of Baltimore.

Per challenge rules, participants are supposed to have 24 hours to dump the water over their heads and donate $10. If they don’t, they’re asked to donate $100. They can also do both, and plenty of participants have.

There are those like Pompa who have disavowed the challenge in favor of other charities. Others have wondered why donors can’t just give money quietly if they believe in the cause.

“We exist in a world with so much media saturation,” Blumberg said. “In order to get someone’s attention, sometimes you have to do something that drives that attention in an overwhelming way.”

Many charities through the years have done just that. This includes the Livestrong Foundation, which has raised tens of millions of dollars through the years with its iconic yellow bracelets. The St. Baldrick’s Foundation has experienced similar success with its fundraisers where people get sponsored to have their heads shaved in support of pediatric cancer research.

Locally, the Maryland State Police have raised millions for Special Olympics of Maryland with its annual Polar Bear Plunge during which thousands take a dip into the Chesapeake Bay in the end of January.

Blumberg predicted other causes may try to start their own gimmicky fundraisers, but warned the public could bore quickly.

“Which means people are going to have to start coming up with other things,” Blumberg said.

Other charities say they’re watching the challenge with interest, and maybe a bit of envy. But they also say they have their own list of dedicated donors like Pompa, who aren’t going anywhere. 

Kim Schmulowitz, interim race manager for Susan G. Komen Maryland, which raises money for breast cancer research, said the ice bucket challenge hasn’t dampened its flow of donations.

She said Komen’s supporters tend to come back year after, particularly for the foundation’s Race for the Cure 5K, its most well-known fundraiser.

“I think the ice bucket challenge was something that was unique and Internet-driven,” Schmulowitz said. “A lot of people are jumping on the bandwagon.”

She was one of them.

“I did it with my daughter, and it was kind of a bonding moment,” she said. “It was fun for us. I also know people who have suffered from ALS.”

She said Komen Maryland is always brainstorming new fundraising ideas and looking for ways to bring steady income to the organization.

“We would love to have the influx of donations (that ALS got),” Schmulowitz said. “But we’re looking for a sustainable model, rather than sort of a quick hit.”

Vivienne Stearns-Elliott, spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society’s Baltimore office, also said the ice bucket challenge isn’t affecting donations.

The local organization is in the middle of a social media-fueled awareness campaign of its own. It will host a Stand Up To Cancer viewing party Sept. 5 at Loyola College, where a documentary on fundraising efforts will be shown. The Baltimore viewing party is one of more than 200 across the country that could be featured during a live telecast, American Cancer Society volunteers said.

The ice bucket challenge has been fun for other organizations to watch, Stearns-Elliott said.

“It’s novel and exciting,” she said.

For the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the ice bucket challenge is an inspiration as well.

“It’s exciting to see so many people engaging in such a significant cause,” spokeswoman Arney Rosenblat said.

While the National MS Society doesn’t have a specific social media-driven fundraiser like the ice bucket challenge, the national chapter promotes a do-it-yourself fundraising philosophy.

Individual chapters of the society are encouraged to come up with their own creative fundraisers, with the support of the national chapter.

Since that initiative was launched a few years ago, contributions have grown by “double digits,” Rosenblat said.

In a few cases, individual chapters’ fundraisers have been so successful that they have spread to other regions. The MuckFest MS, a 5K obstacle course, started in Jacksonville, Fla. and has now spread to other states.  Finish MS, an endurance event for swimmers, runners, bicyclists and other athletes, began the same way.

Rosenblat said it’s hard to say why the ice bucket challenge has captivated the public the way it has. She recalled another gimmick, not done by the MS Society, which involved people getting pies smashed in their faces.

“And it died. Why? I don’t know,” Rosenblat said. “For whatever reason, the ice bucket challenge has energized people and their imaginations.”

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