The 'Ice Bucket Challenge' Has Raised $88.5 Million (And Counting) For ALS. Now What?

08/26/2014 03:39 pm ET | Updated Aug 26, 2014
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Donations from the ubiquitous ice bucket challenge are still pouring in at an astounding rate and supporters want to know how their funds are going to be spent. But the answer isn’t so simple.

As of Tuesday, the ALS Association (ALSA) -- which fights Lou Gehrig’s disease by funding research, supporting people with the condition and fostering government partnerships -- had collected $88.5 million over a matter of weeks this summer from the viral social media campaign. It’s a particularly stunning figure considering that the organization collected $2.6 million in the same period last year, according to a statement released by the group.

But the nonprofit hasn’t yet spelled out how it will use the onslaught of donations.

More and more celebrities (Matt Damon recently dumped toilet water on his head), politicians (George W. Bush tasked Bill Clinton to get involved) and everyday people who are just learning about the progressive neurodegenerative disease continue to take on the stunt -- which requires either pouring a bucket of ice over your head or making a donation.

But as the number of posted videos continues to increase, so do the questions about how this unexpected frenzy will actually help victims of the disease, which often leads to total paralysis and death within two to five years of diagnosis, and has no cure.

ALSA said in a statement on Tuesday that it’s "awe-struck" by the outpouring of generosity, but isn’t providing definitive answers yet.

"This ... isn’t a matter of spending these dollars quickly," Barbara Newhouse, president and CEO of the ALSA, said in a statement. "It’s a matter of investing these dollars prudently to achieve maximum impact in our quest to help people living with the disease and those yet to be diagnosed."

Some critics have been quick to dissuade donors from continuing to pour money into a cause that may not prove to have a fruitful effect.

"Giving money to a disease-specific charity is a very odd, and peculiarly ineffective, way of spending your philanthropic dollar -- especially when your donation is a one-off thing," Fusion senior editor Felix Salmon wrote in a Slate piece on Sunday. "After 30 years of work, we don’t seem to be any closer to finding a cure [for ALS]. And there’s no particular reason to believe that we’re $100 million away from finally getting somewhere."

For those determined to see their donations make a definitive difference in their lifetime, Salmon urges giving money to medicine-based, education, clean water or animal rescue efforts.

But it’s possible that donors aren’t necessarily expecting this viral campaign to be the key to a cure.

In early August, before the organization had an idea of how much money would flow in from the ice bucket challenge, ALSA awarded 21 new grants -- worth $3.5 million -- to scientists in the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Canada, Switzerland, Israel and Australia who are working on "effective therapies" for ALS, Fortune reported.

Lance Slaughter, chief chapter relations and development officer at ALSA, told Fortune that the surge in donations will ensure that the organization will be able to continue funding these grants in their second and third years.

The organization currently has 34 clinics that provide multidisciplinary therapies to ALS patients and had pledged to open 11 more this year prior to the success of the ice bucket challenge, even though such a commitment was a "leap of faith," Slaughter told the news outlet. The recent donations will help continue to fund these clinics.

Despite these tangible results, critics say that supporters shouldn’t be too quick to celebrate.

William MacAskill, founder of 80,000 Hours -- a group that coaches people in how to use their careers to change the world -- posited that many donors are just redirecting money they would’ve given to other causes to ALSA.

He estimates that about half of the funds raised by the ice bucket challenge would’ve gone elsewhere, MacAskill wrote in his Quartz piece.

"It’s called 'moral licensing,'" he wrote, "the idea that doing one good action leads one to compensate by doing fewer good actions in the future."

According to ALSA, it’s gotten 1.9 million new donors, thanks to the viral challenge. But some experts disagree that these supporters are now giving less to other causes.

Steve MacLaughlin, director of product management for Blackbaud -- which specializes in online donation systems -- thinks the theory doesn’t hold any water.

"Giving isn't a zero sum game," he told Mashable. "Just because someone is giving to one charity, does not mean someone else is losing out."

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