Hashtag Campaigns: #activism or #slacktivism?

How To | June 17, 2015

Ever since the Occupy Wall Street movement, hashtag campaigns have entered the public discourse as a heavily – and heatedly – debated topic. While some see hashtag activism as a legitimate form of protest and an opportunity to raise awareness for under-the-radar topics, others condemn it as meaningless, narcissistic slacktivism.

Many hashtag campaigns or movements are started by individuals eager to show solidarity for an issue or a person, or for the purpose of calling out a societal or ethical problem.

Recent examples are the #donthave1million hashtag started by Eveline Xia to draw attention to Vancouver’s housing crisis, or #YoTambienMeDormier (I’ve also fallen asleep). The movement started with a patient sharing a picture of a sleeping Mexican medical resident, criticising the resident for falling asleep. Shortly after, the photo got picked up by a young doctor to draw attention to doctors’ rights and medical professionals all over the world started sharing the hashtag along with images of themselves sleeping – or mock sleeping – on the job.

Nonprofit-run hashtag campaigns or campaigns benefiting a specific charity or cause often have the added objective of raising money on top of awareness — to varying degrees of success and public pushback.

But what exactly do both sides argue? And what rules can charities follow to make sure their hashtag campaign has a real world impact?

The ALS #IceBucketChallenge: Pro & Con Arguments

One of the most successful – if not the most successful – example for a cause-driven campaign is the ALS #IceBucketChallenge. The campaign went viral during the summer of 2014 with 2.2 million Twitter mentions, over $100 million raised for various ALS charities. Even Kermit The Frog felt compelled to participate.

What was it all about?

In support of ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, the #IceBucketChallenge inspired people across the world to post videos of themselves to social media, while having a bucket of ice-cold water emptied over their head. Participants then challenged friends, families or celebrities to follow suit or make a donation to an ALS charity.


Proponents’ arguments:

Supporters of the challenge mainly point to the huge amount of money and awareness raised and how both will change lives for ALS patients in the long run.

Project ALS, a New York-based non-profit that funds ALS research, reported that they received nearly 50 times the donations they would usually get during a summer month.

Along the same lines of thinking, economics professor and ALS patient Stephen Finger writes in his Huffington Post column:

People who did the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge need to remember that they were helping families. They were trying to change our future. Ice Bucket funds have improved the research landscape.  I am taking part in a Precision Medicine study at the ALS Therapy Development Institute that was made possible by a surge in funding last summer. The ALS Association received the lion’s share of donations and has been able to triple their annual research spending, as well as increasing funding for patient services and building relationships with other ALS organization that share a common goal.


Newsweek journalist Alex Leo emphasizes that, on top of the impressive amount of money raised, the challenge succeeded in drawing attention to a disease that, prior to the campaign, was widely overlooked by the general public.

ALS is not a disease that is sexy in the minds of Americans. … This dual purpose of raising awareness and raising $107 million, that’s a huge amount of money and a huge amount of awareness brought to something that isn’t talked about as much as prostate cancer or colon cancer or one of those diseases. The very clear call to action is what separates this campaign from something like #Kony2012 or #BringBackOurGirls.


Opponents’ arguments:

Contrary to the glowing praise by supporters, the Ice Bucket Challenge also garnered a significant amount of criticism, mostly around the “gimmicky” nature of the campaign and a lack of cause focus.

Initially intrigued by the ALS #IceBucketChallenge, Jacob Davidson, whose father died of ALS, wrote about the shortcomings of the campaign in this TIME article:

“[W]hen I looked closer, I became uneasy. No wonder it took me weeks to learn the Ice Bucket Challenge was linked to ALS. Most of its participants, including Kennedy and Today’s Matt Lauer didn’t mention the disease at all. The chance to jump on the latest trend was an end in itself.”


Vice writer Arielle Pardes objects to the challenge’s overall structure, which gives people a choice to dump cold water on their head or donate —  turning what should be a decision guided by charitable impulse and empathy into “a game of Would-You-Rather involving the entire internet where, appallingly, most Americans would rather dump ice water on their head than donate to charity.”

To her, the campaign comes down to nothing more than “narcissism masked as altruism” with a slim chance of participants really learning something about the cause:

By the time the summer heat cools off and ice water no longer feels refreshing, people will have completely forgotten about ALS. It’s trendy to pretend that we care, but eventually, those trends fade away.


Similar to Pardes, Quartz writer William MacAskill squirms at donor-focused philanthropy campaigns like the #IceBucketChallenge. Philanthropy, he argues, should always be more about the cause and the people in need than the giver:

Those who participate in the ice bucket challenge donate to ALS not, seemingly, because they’ve thought about the many problems in the world, and tried to figure out how they personally can best address those problems. … This is problematic: We should reward the charities that we believe do the most good, not those that have the best marketing strategy, otherwise the most successful charities will be those that are best at soliciting funds, not those that are best at making the world a better place.


Whether you fall into the hashtag activism supporter or skeptic camp, one thing’s for certain: social media activism is here to stay and charities have to start asking themselves how they want to use the power of social media campaigns to their advantage.

3 Tips To Make Your Charity’s Next Hashtag Campaign A Success

Many charities feel wary about starting hashtag campaigns to promote their cause. They are fearful of “getting it wrong” and having to face criticism from millions of online users (think #Kony2012.)

And then there’s skepticism around social media campaigns’ impact: Can hashtag campaigns have a long-lasting impact? How effective are they when it comes to generating donations on top of public awareness? In short: Are hashtag campaigns worth the hassle?

While there is no guarantee you will end up raising over $100 million, there are some steps you can take today to make sure your next (or first) hashtag campaign translates into real-world impact and offers meaning to your supports beyond a retweet or shared Facebook post.

Tip #1 – Tie Your Campaign to Your Core Values and Mission

Charitable social media campaigns often jump on an existing trend or piggyback onto a breaking news story to garner public attention, also known as “newsjacking”. The Salvation Army’s latest campaign, for example “newsjacked” the viral “The Dress” phenomenon to raise awareness for domestic violence.

To make sure that this approach doesn’t backfire on you, Jeff Shuck, CEO of Plenty Consulting, offers an important piece of advice in his interview with Forbes: Don’t just jump onto any viral trend, but make sure the topic of your social media campaign ties into your core beliefs.

Given the campaign’s unbelievable success … what does Shuck tell the charities that now want an Ice Bucket Challenge of their own?

“You could sit in a room for a year and come up with a thousand ideas that seem like a breakthrough success, and then most of them wouldn’t work.” Instead, a charity needs to start by examining its core values and mission, he says, and then figure out “if there’s an interesting, catchy campaign around it.”

Tip #2 – Campaign Effectiveness

One of the arguments made over and over by hashtag campaign opponents is a lack of campaign effectiveness: What good is it to take action online if that action doesn’t translate into tangible change in the real world?

The question of effectiveness is an interesting one — and one charities should keep in mind when planning a hashtag campaign. Before you go public with your campaign, ask yourself:

  • How do we want to define and measure effectiveness for this campaign? What are our objectives and what key metrics do we need to determine to quantify success and report back to our supporters?
  • How can we make sure that our hashtag campaign results in real world change?
  • How can we make sure we change minds by educating the public about the issue at heart?

Tip #3 – Report Back to Your Supporters

Reporting impact back to your supporters is important for any campaign. But it’s especially important for hashtag campaigns given the stigma of armchair activism.

While it is impossible to engage each supporter individually in larger social media campaigns, here are some things you can do to make sure your supporters feel meaningfully involved, connected to your cause and confident that their action will translate into real-world change:

1) Be responsive on social media

Don’t miss out on the chance to network with your online audience. Make sure to reply to as many tweets, Facebook or Instagram comments as possible related to your campaign, and thank people for helping you to spread the word.

2) Make information about your cause easily available

While you can’t deliver in-depth information about your cause in a 140-character tweet, you can easily point people to resources, so that they can read up on what exactly your campaign is about and what impact it will have. Providing follow-up information is essential in creating informed awareness for your cause.

3) Report impact

Once your hashtag campaign has wrapped up, be sure to report back to donees and online supporters what impact their contribution will make. Plan for at least three updates: right after your campaign, at the 6-month mark and — especially if your campaign is a recurring event — shortly before launching your next campaign.

For more information on how to avoid pitfalls, and run a successful hashtag campaign, have a look at these excellent articles by social media wizards, thought leaders and journalists:

Mashable // 8 Tips for a successful social media cause campaign

Beth Kanter // Ice Bucket Challenge: Can other charities reproduce it?

John Hayden // 3 big fundraising lessons from #IceBucketChallenge

Nonprofit Hub // The top 4 nonprofit social media campaigns of 2013 (and what you can learn)

The Guardian // How to achieve fundraising success on social media

The Nonprofit Marketing Guide // Newsjacking: The new way to get media attention





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