Annual Polar Bear Plunge Fundraiser adapts to virtual environment

A graphic from CCAN’s plunge website displays the three suggested ways that plungers can participate at home or locally: doing an ice bucket challenge, running into a local body of water like a creek, or jumping into a kiddie pool or bath tub at home.

Graphic courtesy of CCAN

A graphic from CCAN’s plunge website displays the three suggested ways that plungers can participate at home or locally: doing an ice bucket challenge, running into a local body of water like a creek, or jumping into a kiddie pool or bath tub at home.

By Quinn Cook, News Editor

As global temperatures climb, participants’ temperatures will fall for a couple chilly moments as they experience true winter bliss. Polar bear plunge fundraisers, in which people pledge to run into icy winter waters, are uniquely exciting events, but even more pertinent in relation to climate change. 

Climate change has rocked the arctic regions of the Earth, stealing animals such as polar bears’ ice, habitats, diets and lives; it also poses alarming existential threats to all life as we know it. The Chesapeake Climate Action Network’s (CCAN) annual Polar Bear Plunge Fundraiser, aimed at “keeping winter cold”, is its keynote event, as participants raise donations to help fund the non-profit’s work, but this year on Feb. 13, plungers will be fulfilling their pledges virtually.

“CCAN’s annual polar bear plunge raises around 10% of our annual budget, and it’s a way to not only fundraise, but to really get our supporters out there taking action to show how dedicated they are to the climate fight,” Courtney Dyson, CCAN’s Donor Communications Manager said. “We do have some people who do it for the experience, a lot of plungers who come year after year because of the freezing cold water, and many because of CCAN’s cause.” 

CCAN, founded in 2002, is the first ever grassroots nonprofit dedicated exclusively to fighting climate change in Maryland, Virginia and Washington, D.C. According to CCAN, its mission is to “put our region on the path to climate stability, while using our proximity to the nation’s capital to inspire action in neighboring states, regions and countries around the world.” CCAN’s polar plunge event has evolved over the years into a massive event of people, presentations and chilly community fun. 

“I plunged with my friends and fellow CFC officers. Although I ran into the water with friends, everyone at the event was plunging together,” Anusha Anand, a WCHS senior, Churchill For Climate club officer, and 2020 plunge participant said. “This event will always be special to me because of the community that it created, people of all ages and ethnicities united for the cause.”  

CCAN was able to beat their $160,000 total goal last year with an impressive $167,000 raised. After fundraising in the months, weeks and days beforehand, the event in recent years has taken place at the National Harbor. Participants and supporters alike gather for rallying, contests, sustainable networking and entertainment before fulfilling their piercing promises.  

“The event began in a tent at the National Harbor with food, music, guest speakers, and more. After a couple hours we made our way down to the water and began to plunge,” Anand said. “I was expecting the plunge to be extremely frigid and unpleasant, however it felt surprisingly numb. That was probably due to adrenaline, but it was still fun and exciting nonetheless.” 

The 16th rendition of the plunge will be a little different than those with the crowds and closeness of recent years, but not inherently worse. For the first time ever, CCAN’s plunge will be a virtual event, one where people plunge at home or locally, named the “BRRR-Tual Polar Bear Plunge.” 

“It’s gonna be virtual, but instead of looking at that in a negative way, we are looking at it in that we can make this plunge national this year,” Dyson said. “We have supporters who’ve moved to other areas of the country, and allies in other parts of the country.” 

Instead of one large in person event where everyone rushes into the water, CCAN and its plungers are looking to take advantage of the accessibility and creativity that can be applied to an at-home plunge. 

“I think the circumstances allow it to be more accessible. Because each person or group is plunging on their own, anybody can participate from home without having to drive to the national harbor,” Anand said. “There’s still virtual events, so there will be a sense of community in some form.”

Even with this fundamental virtual and national change, CCAN’s plunge will remain a rousing climate community event. CCAN has worked incredibly hard to completely change the plunge to its virtual form, adapting its events, resources, strategies, prizes, contests and community aspects.  

“In general we are trying to keep a lot the same, we are gonna have pre-plunge and post-plunge events, and a virtual costume contest as well as a comedian will join us,” Dyson said. “Bill McKibben, founder, will be the keynote speaker this year because it’s virtual.” 

Even with a new environment, plungers seem very ready to embrace a statement year of climate activism. With fundraising largely unimpacted, as done mainly online in past years anyways, this year’s accessibility has allowed CCAN to up their fundraising goal to an all time high of $200,000. 

“I am going to participate this year and fundraise the same way as last year. My fellow officers and I are planning on finding a local creek to do the plunge,” Anand said. “[Last year] I signed up as a member of the group ‘Churchill for Climate.’ To raise money, I emailed many friends and family asking for a donation to sponsor my plunge. We also posted on Instagram to spread the word.” 

To actually complete the plunge, CCAN is suggesting a variety of at-home and local alternatives such as an ice-bath or kiddie pool, dumping a bucket of ice water, or going to nearby water like a local creek. This year’s plunge promotes individual creativity in plunge, costumes, signs and more.

CCAN’s polar plunge information website states, “If your team includes people from outside your household or ‘pod’ and you plan to plunge together, we encourage you to wear masks and stay 6 feet apart.” Although social distancing is necessary, these plunges won’t be symbolically isolated. 

“We are gonna ask plungers to send photos and record their plunge, and we are going to compile these and send them to representatives on Capitol Hill and state legislators,” Dyson said. “With all of the craziness of the past year, this is a concrete way for someone to take an action and send a clear message. This is giving plungers, but also those donating a way to say I care about climate.” 

CCAN’s plunge has always been an easy process, but even more so this year. Signing up is simple: all participants have to do is go to CCAN’s Plunge Registration site, and use their email to make a personal page. Briefly within the sign up process, participants also can create or join a group. Once their page is started, including a goal and bio, participants can immediately fundraise. 

With all the fundraising transactions handled directly by CCAN’s site, all participants have to do is share their site with supporters. On each personal page, there are countless resources to walk participants through fundraising, site navigation and more; this joins the entire CCAN plunge central website.  

“We’ve added a lot to our website including our plunger toolbox which has a fundraising guide, some social media tools and an email template you can send,” Dyson said. We also have how-to videos if you have tech difficulties with the website, and put a plunge program as well.”

As plungers raise money CCAN also has many rewards including a pre-plunge packet, 2021 plunge t-shirt and even a lottery entry for an electric bike worth over $3,000. The top group will receive a wine flight from a local vineyard, and for the top individual, an original painting valued at $600. 

“This event is so important, not only because of the money it raises to support local environmental efforts, but also because it energizes people to create meaningful change” Anand said. “Sometimes it can feel overwhelming to fight climate change, but events like these are hopeful and motivating.”

As time keeps moving and the climate crisis worsens, dramatic action is required, making this year’ CCAN’s most important one yet. CCAN’s plunge hopes to supply participants with the rare combination of an event that is not only easy and enjoyable, but also an essential cause. 

“If I could say one thing to on-the-fence plungers it would be: celebrate the planet you love on the weekend of love,” Dyson said. “What better way is there to show your love for our planet than by protecting it. You can do just that by taking the plunge on February 13th.”