Read: Why the rich don’t give to charity
The few events that have bucked this trend are, among other qualities, linked to diseases that are growing in prevalence. The Alzheimer’s Association Walk to End Alzheimer’s grew by 8 percent in the past year, potentially because Alzheimer’s is affecting more families.
But elsewhere, the toll has been steep: The American Cancer Society became so reliant on charity walks such as Relay for Life that the organization has suffered severe revenue losses lately. “Our declines were much more pronounced than some other organizations,” a spokesperson for the organization recently told The New York Times. “We have been reengineering and diversifying our revenue portfolio.” This diversification has included fund-raising partnerships with controversial organizations such as Herbalife International, the maker of supplements, sparking the resignation of a top official earlier this month.
“For many of the legacy programs, flat is the new up,” Hessekiel says.
These programs work by stirring people to go out and raise money from their friends and family (they’re called “peer to peer” events for that reason), then donate it to a disease foundation. Disease-related groups are especially fond of the various -thons. On the big day, everyone comes out to walk, run, bike, or get shaved en masse.
Before the internet took over, “runs and walks were a way for people to connect around a common cause,” says Elizabeth Dale, a professor of nonprofit leadership at Seattle University. “I remember as a kid doing a 15-kilometer walk for multiple sclerosis. We had a family friend with MS, and I got to walk in her honor. There was real value in coming together and participating in something with other people.”
Beyond the solidarity, it was the suffering—all those ropes jumped, miles walked, hours biked—that kept the dollars pouring in. According to research by Christopher Olivola, an assistant professor of marketing at Carnegie Mellon University, people are more willing to donate money to those who will be suffering for a cause. In his studies, people offered more to a participant who would hold his or her hands in cold water for a minute, or who claimed an upcoming fund-raising task would be “really tough,” or who was biking an extreme distance instead of a short one. It’s a phenomenon he calls, fittingly, the “martyrdom effect”—and it was exhibited perfectly by the ice-bucket challenge.
The problem today, speculates Olivola, is that it’s no longer extreme enough, or sacrificial-seeming enough, just to walk a long distance or jump in place for a while. Sure, the only thing that should matter is the cause the money’s going to, but “in people’s minds, what also matters is, how is it being raised? Are people doing something easy, or are they riding through Antarctica on broken glass in gorilla suits?” he says.