Where Your ALS Ice Bucket Challenge Dollars Are Actually Going

Flickr / Kymberley Janisch
Flickr / Kymberley Janisch

When I got nominated for the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, I knew I wouldn’t be taking up the challenge. Given my own views on resource-consciousness, and having supported water initiatives for disadvantaged communities, it would be a little contradictory to participate. However, I did want to monetarily support the cause and had planned to do so until I came across some financial information from the ALS Association. I will get to that later.

If there are a people who are charitable donors in terms of non-profit giving, Americans sit right at the top of all developed nations, with the highest charity dollars per capita. In 2011, Americans gave $200 billion in total. This is during tough economic times, mind you. It is something Americans can and should be proud of. However, as anyone who has ever taken the time to look at the financials (and other data) of many large non-profit organizations knows, these dollars don’t always go where they should be going.

Full disclosure: I don’t give monetarily to a lot of big non-profit organizations, with the exception of Catholic Charities. Having done the research into many non-profit organizations, especially those that work in developing and underdeveloped nations, I am often appalled at how they allocate their money. Here is a list available of America’s worst charities, and I suggest you take a look.

My personal giving interests are poverty, hunger, children’s health, and education, so I have always tried to support local and grassroots organizations that focus on alleviating those kinds of human suffering. I don’t have much to give but I firmly believe in, “If you don’t give when you have a little, you won’t give when you have a lot.” That said, I enjoy finding out incredible work being done for different things, and supporting if I can, with the odd treasure or time I have.

Despite being somewhat irritated that at least online, there seemed to be more interest in doing this challenge than in talking about what I believe was another pertinent situation – in Ferguson – I still thought it was great that social media can be used for advocacy and fundraising like this. Like one writer suggested in an article that discussed both ALS and Ferguson, it is not a mutually exclusive choice; but we need to be more thoughtful about how we approach each one, and all difference in general.

Now onto the ALS financials. A screenshot of the annual report of the ALS’s  2012 Statement of Cash Flows looks like this:

ALS 2012 Annual Report
ALS 2012 Annual Report

Let’s take a closer look at the 2012 Total Confirmed Expenses:

ALS 2012 Annual Report
ALS 2012 Annual Report

Pulling up more recent data from 2014, their expenses are broken-down like this:

Annual Report FYE January 31, 2014
Annual Report FYE January 31, 2014

To put it in simple terms: In 2012, for every $100 the ALS got, $7.71 was spent on research. In 2014, that at least improved to $27. Knowing what I know from organizational analysis of non-profits, it is not the worst. But I’m not convinced it is good enough. Especially for an organization that has a mission that states:

Established in 1985, The ALS Association is the only national non-profit organization fighting Lou Gehrig’s Disease on every front.  By leading the way in global research, providing assistance for people with ALS through a nationwide network of chapters, coordinating multidisciplinary care through certified clinical care centers, and fostering government partnerships, The Association builds hope and enhances quality of life while aggressively searching for new treatments and a cure. (ALS.org)

In order to get a clearer picture of the organization, I also took a look at the earnings of their upper-management by looking at their 2013 tax return:

(The leadership and their titles are on the left, and their salaries are on the far right.)

ALS 2013 tax returns
ALS 2013 tax returns

If these figures are surprising, again I suggest doing this sort of analysis on all major charitable organizations because this is the reality of many “big” non-profits. Now I am by no means suggesting that because one works in non-profits, one should be poor. No. But these earnings do resemble those of for-profit sectors, and financially – in terms of taxes – and morally, that at least should be an eye-opener, and raise some questions. Competitive salaries are necessary for those in this line of work, but it arguably must always be in consideration of, and relative to, the mission of the non-profit work in the first place.

Other information that I came across which I was not able to find source confirmation for, but did consult several friends and acquaintances in medical research and pharmaceutical engineering, is that the stem-cell research by the ALS is from aborted fetuses. Thus, if one is pro-life, it may be deeply problematic to support even the research being done by this organization. (It was suggested that if one does have an interest in this disease, it may be worth it to look into supporting non-pharmaceutical related interventions.)

I’ll end by saying I have a lot of respect for people who go into non-profit work. I have considered it many times, and have friends and family who are either directly employed, or sit on boards of, or support different kinds of work. (Many of those employed in these ogranizations are in lower level positions that are grossly underpaid.) I firmly believe that one of our purposes on earth is to alleviate the suffering of others in any way we can. In the information age especially, however, we have the resources to do our homework about the kinds of organizations we wish to support and to call into question dubious organizations. I am not going to say give to this organization, or that one, or don’t. But at least know where your charitable dollars are going. And endeavor not to get carried away with the crowd, no matter how cool they may seem, pun intended. TC mark

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