End of an Era: Muscular Dystrophy Association Retires Its Telethon

The long-running Muscular Dystrophy Association Labor Day Telethon, associated with comic Jerry Lewis, is coming to a close—though the organization that has benefited from it plans to use a similar sort of savvy in creating smart online fundraising campaigns.

Following a year where ice buckets outshone televised donation campaigns, it appears the telethon’s greatest proponent is seeing that the tides are turning in a new direction.

Last week, the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) announced that it would end its annual Labor Day Telethon, an event that it had put on for the past five decades. Most of that time, the telethon had been hosted by legendary comedian Jerry Lewis over 21.5 nonstop hours each year, though the 89-year-old gave up the role in 2010. Here are the final moments of Lewis’ last telethon, which raised more than $58 million:

But MDA’s campaign has slacked off in recent years, as the iconic Lewis departed from the role and the length of the telethon shrank to a two-hour primetime telecast, most recently renamed “MDA Show of Strength,” which had a more modern-day feel, with artists such as Rascal Flatts, Fall Out Boy, and LeAnn Rimes taking part.

However, the telethon’s returns have failed to match previous years. Last year, the organization raised $56.9 million in donations, a drop from some of its peak years.

And over the years, critics of the telethon format persisted—particularly those who felt Lewis and others focused on stereotypes of people suffering from muscle disorders. But perhaps most problematic for MDA was that the format was something of a costly relic in a time when online donations can prove more effective.

MDA President and CEO Steven M. Derks admitted that the ALS Association’s Ice Bucket Challenge, which raised more than $100 million for the organization last year, was a key consideration in the move.

“The decision to end our beloved telethon was not made lightly,” Derks said in a news release. “In the last few years, the show was adjusted to reflect changes in viewership and donor patterns, and last summer’s Ice Bucket Challenge once again affirmed for us that today’s families, donors and sponsors are looking to us for new, creative and organic ways to support our mission.”

(That said, the telethon lifetime donation total is fairly massive, with the group raising more than $2 billion over the past 50 years.)

So, What’s Next?

While the format for donations is soon to change, the corporate and organizational sponsors that have driven the organization over the decades probably won’t. The International Association of Fire Fighters (IAFF), MDA’s longtime biggest sponsor, pledged to stand by the charity’s side as it changed tactics.

“The kids and families MDA helps have always been our heroes, and we’re not stopping until we find cures,” IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger said in the news release.

The organization, which donated $26.8 million toward MDA’s 2014 Labor Day total, isn’t alone in being willing to help out. The charity also counts companies like Harley-Davidson, Kroger, Jiffy Lube, and Lowe’s among its many corporate partners.

And MDA has maintained a canniness for creating buzzy fundraising events. In recent years, the group has launched a program called MDA Lock-Up, which puts local business leaders behind bars until a certain amount of money is raised.

While the new efforts may not always drive the star power of Dean Martin, John Lennon, Frank Sinatra, or Michael Jackson—some of the telethon’s most famous guest performers—they might in the long run prove just as effective, if not more so.

“We have ambitious plans to leverage our history, the compelling stories of our families and our record of innovation—just like we did decades ago when we introduced the telethon and cause-marketing for nonprofit organizations—as we continue to use creative ways to connect with supporters and deliver more value for our sponsors, never forgetting the families who are at the very heart of our mission,” MDA’s Derks added.

Jerry Lewis, right, shown with Dean Martin and Frank Sinatra at the 1976 MDA Labor Day Telethon. (Muscular Dystrophy Association)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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