A burgeoning social movement argues that instead of taking part in such online stunts, we should be critically thinking how our charitable donations and even our careers can have make a maximum positive impact.
William MacAskill, an associate professor at Oxford University, is a proponent of effective altruism, a philosophy that applies scientific reasoning to the often sentimental world of doing good.
His book, Doing Good Better, is an unflinching examination of how some social programmes are more deserving of our time and effort than others.
It also challenges the assumption that all money donated to charity must be a good thing.
“The ice bucket challenge raised around $100 million for the ALS Association,” said MacAskill in an interview with The Scotsman.
“Intuitively, you might think: ‘oh, that’s a $100 million raised for charity’. But that’s not the way fundraising works.
“When you raise money for a cause, at least some of that money is going to be taken from other charitable endeavours. Psychologists call this moral licensing effect - I’ve also referred to it as funding cannibalism. If you do one good deed, especially if that one good deed is done very publicly, then you have proven to others you’re a good person and that reduces the incentive you have to do good deeds elsewhere in your life.”
The 28-year-old, who grew up in Dumbreck, in the southside of Glasgow, is cofounder of the non-profit Giving What We Can organisation. It encourages members to give at least 10 per cent of their annual salaries to charities that make the most impact.
“Most of the time when we give, we do so reactively when someone approaches us in the street, or when we get a flyer in the mail, and we do so on the basis of these gut emotional decisions,” MacAskill explained.
“It seems like an important cause and you’re willing to trust the other person that they’re going to do good work. But sadly, the majority of social programmes, when tested, are found to have no effect at all.”
One example is Scared Straight. An American initiative, it provides tours of prisons to school children in the belief they will so terrified of conditions inside that it will turn them away from a life of crime.
“A number of trials have been conducted on this programme and found it increases the rate of juvenile crime,” MacAskill added. “One estimate said that for every dollar spent, there’s a cost of $230 to society as a result of increased criminality. Yet this programme is still incredibly popular.”
Testing the effectiveness of charities and social programmes is the cornerstone of the effective altruism movement.
“There’s a vast discrepancy among the different ways of doing good,” he said. “The very best charities do 100 times, maybe even a 1000 times more than ones that are merely good. It’s not enough to just say ‘this is working’. The question should be: is this most impact it can have?”
MacAskill was interested in how he could make a difference from a young age. The former Hutchesons’ Grammar School pupil volunteered for local groups and worked at a Newton Mearns care home.
But it was standing on Glasgow’s Sauchiehall Street while working as a charity fundraiser - or chugger as they are sometimes known - that he first began to question his own attitudes to altruism.
“I was one of those annoying people who would ask you for £10 a month,” he said. “All day, every day I was speaking about how extreme global poverty was, and how much you could do to help through the power of donations.
“As you might expect, I got these blank, apathetic stares back at me. I was angry and annoyed. I thought people were not living up to their own values. And then I realised I wasn’t living up to my own values - I needed to start changing what I was going to do with my life.”
MacAskill moved to Oxford to begin a post-graduate course in 2008 and began to actively seek out people who were interested in taking forward some of the ideas he had come course while studying moral philosophy.
Doing Good Better is full of practical suggestions and tips on where your money can make the most difference. A simple starting place is by visiting the Give Well website and establishing a direct debit with some its recommended charities.
There’s also some startling revelations about widespread diseases that can be effectively treated cheaply.
“A lot of people don’t know about this, but about a billion people worldwide suffer from worms living in their stomach,” MacAskill said. “They don’t kill as many people as AIDS or tuberculosis, but they do make a huge number of people sick - and they can be cured exceptionally cheaply. You can distribute these drugs en masse in schools which only cost around 50 pence per child to cure them. It increases school attendance and then productivity and earning later in life.”
It’s another example of effective altruism that doesn’t require a video uploaded to Facebook to make a serious impact.