February 2018 Blog: Mass Philanthropy and Social Media: From the “Ice Bucket Challenge” to the International Humanitarian Crisis

Blog, Quebec Hub, Student Publications

The research available on social media is mainly concerning the impact of its actions on social capital, the relationships between users, the reasons behind an individual subscription and how the users present themselves to the world. This research has generate specific case studies about Twitter and Facebook (Ellison et al., 2007 ; Jonson, 2008). The study by Ellison et al.showed that Facebook allows for the creation of links between social groups that would never have been able to interact offline. Today, Facebook is the most popular social media platform in the world[1]. It is for this reason that it is used by numerous marketing specialists. Sales professionals are not the only ones to use this social media. In fact, this platform is also an opportunity for certain non-profit organizations, given the little funds required to use it and especially because of the sought-after impact. Social media has added a new degree of spontaneity to philanthropy by allowing for more virtual forms of collective action, whatever the cause, from medical research to the humanitarian crisis. In what way can we say that mass philanthropy occurs through social media platforms today?

Zunz (2012) defines mass philanthropy through observations of American society. In 1916, the Red Cross sells one million stamps to benefit an association against tuberculosis (based on the Danish model) and recruits 500 000 volunteers in preventative actions. Zunz observes that donations are no longer only for great philanthropists, but also stem from an implication by the ordinary citizen. Evidently, this implication is made in function to the available budget. According to this researcher, mass philanthropy is defined by little donations, which are collected on a very large scale from all layers of the population thanks to fundraisers orchestrated by associations in order to respond to a precise cause. Donations become, as of the 1920s, “an American value, integrated into the American social norm and even their lifestyle” (p.82). More recently, the “Pink Ribbon”[2]model follows this approach “where products are associated with a cause and where the act of buying and the act of giving are fused” (Lefèvre, 2015). Mass philanthropy, as defined by Zunz, is a prolonging of the “interest of the included good” by Tocqueville. It represents an opportunity open to all to contribute towards the common good. Mass philanthropy is closer to the idea of “public savings” (Monier, 2013). Under this regard, we grasp the idea of small contributions on a large scale. The combination of “elitist” and  mass philanthropy defines what donations are today. The fundraising programs of non-profit organizations integrate the two strategies in order to guarantee a maximized collection of private funds: combining a very important amount of small individual donations and a limited amount of major donations coming from influential donors.

The “Ice Bucket Challenge” example

On August 27th, 2014, the American Association for the fight against Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis announced their success in raising 100 million dollars[3]thanks to the Ice Bucket Challenge. It represented a significant increase compared to the 64 million they collected on average per year. An interesting fact is that the association is not the one to have started the Ice Bucket Challenge. In fact, the first to have undergone the challenge were two people directly concerned by the disease.

The challenge consisted in dumping a bucket of ice water over one’s head to support the fight against the disease (also known as the Lou Gehrig’s disease). That being done, the idea was to challenge three other people, via social media, to do the same while making a donation to the Association. Quickly, the phenomenon went viral. The two objectives given were one, to get the public at large to talk about this little-known disease and second, to significantly increase the philanthropic donations for the advancement of research. 

« Take one part challenge, one part charity, sprinkle in some celebrity and cook on high with Facebook. Voilà: You have the Ice Bucket Challenge — the viral phenomenon that’s likely taking your Facebook feed by storm.” (Stenovec, 2014) [4]

The Ice Bucket Challenge is a striking illustration of mass philanthropy as defined by Zunz. The Challengehad as its main objective to collect a large number of small donations. Generally, the participants filmed themselves during the stunt, which they then shared on social media with the terms #IceBucketChallenge and #ALSIceBucketChallenge.

This “viral” philanthropy, participatory in nature, generated the diffusion of millions of videos starring individuals be they simple strangers to trending celebrities ranging from Oprah Winfrey to Justin Bieber, and Mark Zukerberg[4]. In this configuration, the users of the platform are pursuing two functions. The first is to participate in the creation of content. In fact, according to Facebook [5](2014), between June 1st and September 1st 2014, more than 17 million videos related to the “Ice Bucket Challenge” were shared on Facebook. The second function is that the users create a snowball effect, a form of virtual word-of-mouth that is sympathetic to the cause. The effect is enormous. These videos were viewed over 10 billion times by over 440 million people (Facebook, 2014). Social media transformed the Ice Bucket Challenge  into a worldwide movement that generated the fundraising of 100 million dollars from over 3 million donors over a period of thirty days.

Phillips and Jung (2016) questioned the incidence of this spontaneous philanthropy on the professionalization and the pertinence of the strategic expertise sought out by the sector. We can equally question the balance between the importance of the cause and using the mechanics of the “challenge”: a contagious effect that oscillates between the sincerity of the participants and a trend effect that is more or less disconnected from the cause. The French press took on the question as so:

This “game mechanism” also has the advantage of not requiring taking a very strong position. Some will do it because they really care about the cause,  others will do it for fun, and still others to profit from the visibility it brings[6].

Among all of the participants of the Challenge, how many truly knew why they were participating? How many of them mentioned their donation in their video? One research possibility would be to observe the portion of videos that, along with the fun part, clearly brought up the financial participation aspect. The Ice Bucket Challenge was then copied for other challenges that were considered dangerous[7].

Social Media favors mass philanthropy and it’s viralness

According to Webber (2004), as of the first half of the 2000s, email was the most common form of communication to reach those under 30. Today, according to the Phil Communications company[8], the efforts of many fundraising campaigns are more and more focused around online donations. This method of fundraising requires nonetheless a clear and coherent website to guide the potential donor.

Many non-profit organizations cannot afford publicity or having a specific website that would play the role of a showcase for awareness of the cause they defend. It is well known that fundraising campaigns require an adequate marketing expertise, ranging from the team specialized in communications to philanthropic management professionals. From the start, social media appears as an alternative to the specialized webpage. Although Facebook isn’t completely free, it requires a minimum of resources and effort, it allows to quickly communicate a message on the cloud, eventually reducing the need to resort to other marketing or public relations methods.

It isn’t solely the small organizations that can benefit from social media. In fact, certain fundraising campaigns emerge spontaneously and without structure. Such is the case of “25 000 tuques[9]”, which proposed knitting a tuque, with a word of welcome, for every Syrian refugee arriving in Canada, from the “Ice Bucket Challenge” or more recently the “#Metoo”, initiated by Hollywood actresses, which allows for women who were victims of harassment or sexual assault to share their story on social media. This movement resonated worldwide (#MoiAussi, #YoTambien, #Jagockså in Sweden, #EuTambém in Brazil, etc.) and allowed for the creation of a “Time’s up” fund which already had 13 million dollars in January 2018.

The public quickly appropriates these causes, creating a wave of support. Even if 25 000 tuqueswasn’t a formally registered non-profit, that the Ice Bucket Challengefound an recipient organization after the beginning of the wave of Facebook videos, and that #MeToo didn’t have a defined philanthropic character at the start, these three events represent an innovative practice stemming from civil society in order to pave the way for donations towards a cause that is deemed as important. As for “25 000 tuques”, Brisebois and Lefèvre (2017) see a “humanizing” of the crisis, where social media become the vector for a process of symbolic construction around a cause, with actors that assert themselves as stakeholders in a “long-distance solidarity”[10].

From local support to the international humanitarian crisis

As Lefèvre (2015) underlines, mass philanthropy sollicitations are not solely geared towards the local. This researcher illustrates the internationalization of this practice by referring to the symbolism of “the little Chinese”: these small images were used by the Sainte-Enfance charity, for many decades in the 20th century, among Quebec schoolchildren in order to call on their generosity to support international philanthropic actions and to financially support the missionary charities.

In the 21st century, images to be exchanged against donations like points at school are not really relevant. Facebook and Twitter have become indispensable fundraising tools, as much on the local as on the international scale. The great champions of mass philanthropy using social media are the large organizations specialized in emergency relief. As we saw earlier with Zunz, they are the pioneers. In fact, when there is a natural (earthquake, hurricane) or human (armed conflict or industrial catastrophe) disaster, charitable organizations increase their presence on social media in order to reach the public quickly. They transmit vital information on the programs they can deploy and on the impact of the financial participation of the public on their actions  (Waters, Burnett, Lamm et Lucas, 2009 ; Lefèvre 2011).

January 12th, 2010, a magnitude 7 earthquake hit Haiti, killing thousands of people and leaving thousands homeless. Entire neighborhoods were destroyed, deprived of electricity and communication services[11]. This situation sparked a massive use of social media in the Northern Hemisphere. The philanthropic response to the catastrophe was immediate. In the twenty-four hours following the catastrophe, the public had already started sending in donations. The American Red Cross received over a million dollars through their website, relayed on their social media, within the first three days. On Twitter, Haiti rapidly became the headline of tweets and users had started to post advice on the organizations to support financially, while advising against others (Preston, 2010).

UNICEF, thanks to the spontaneous initiative of one individual[12], launched a “group” on Facebook called “For the Haitians”: 1 Fan = 1€”. Concretely, through this campaign, the participant became a member of the group and the organization donated one euro to the victims of the earthquake. It was all made possible thanks to advertisements. The group had 700 000 fans on January 22nd, 2010. Similar to the Pink Ribbon phenomenon, social marketing invited themselves to the fundraising scene, but in a virtual way. You no longer need to buy a yogurt or a moisturizing cream, a simple “like” will suffice. Celebrities also saw their participation in the support of Haiti being transmitted thanks to social media: from Sean Penn to President Obama, who gave a portion of his Nobel peace prize[13].

“You can text “HAITI” to 90999 to donate $10 to @RedCross relief efforts in #Haiti”, wrote Katy Perry on her Twitter account.

Other hashtags followed: “#HopeforHaiti” or “#Igave”. While text messaging provides a simple paiement solution, Twitter and Facebook are in charge once again of creating the buzz. It is without a doubt that this combination was powerful for the relief efforts in Haiti.


The users of online social media (be it Facebook or another platform) seem to be growing exponentially with the increase in the number of available platforms. Thanks to these tools, mass philanthropy starts making sense. For the length of one event (the summer of the Ice Bucket Challenge, or, the first weeks following the earthquake of January 12th, 2010 in Haiti), all attention is turned towards a cause that becomes common to all of those who wish to take part in the movement, but also to those who are only spectators. It is hard to have not seen or heard about at least one Ice Bucket Challenge video during the summer of 2014. Frankfurt School asserted that mass media limits the modern human to becoming a simple “passive toy”  (Adorno, 1974[1947]), incapable of thinking for themselves. Mass philanthropy that transits through social media platforms brings the debate back into the news. Jenkins (2006) speaks of “participatory culture” where the spectator is also an actor that interacts minimally with others. The examples cited in this article are illustrations of this paradoxe: the audience is no longer entirely passive, but is limited to a certain amount of standards. They are looking to invest themselves directly (posting their own video of ice water, telling their own story with the #MeToo), even if these acts may seem choreographed, or indirect (giving advice to other web users). This instant and intensive participation, on a large scale, changes the temporality of the event, which is not necessarily in accordance with the temporality of the action (slowness of scientific research, of changes in mentality, or the reconstruction of a country). This type of rapport with the public has without a doubt given the tone for the future of fundraising. Going viral seems to be an important component of mass philanthropy now. Nevertheless, several questions remain. When does the manipulation stemming from communication strategies based not on reason, but on emotions begin? Are we not becoming passive consumers in line for the next mass philanthropy event.