General Ramblings: Hey Lay Dee

November 1, 2010       Paul Clolery      

The Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) has been tinkering with its telethon format for the past decade. They have tested additional on-air talent, changed the broadcast’s location, tried to update the set and have lured (slightly) younger talent to the show.

Trimming the Labor Day tradition to six hours from 21.5 is a bold move. It’s going to disappoint the insomniacs who tune in at 3 a.m. to see the plate twirlers. But in general, the period being lost is down time for the tote board that displays donations.

There is no doubt that the drawing card remains MDA’s long-time chairman Jerry Lewis. He needs a makeover, too, but at 84, the only real work that can be done is making sure he doesn’t alienate the next generation of donors.

There is a reason that the old television shows of Jerry’s former partner Dean Martin sell so well when hawked as DVDs on infomercials. There is nostalgia for the era when television was fun and people weren’t offended by jokes. It was a time when Italians laughed at Polish jokes and vice versa. Marlo Thomas writes brilliantly about the period in her new book Growing Up Laughing: My Story and the Story of Funny.

Lewis has been in the headlines recently for making disparaging remarks about troubled starlet Lindsey Lohan. She makes for an easy target and criticism in most forms, when prodded as Jerry was, is acceptable from someone who has been in the industry nearly four times longer than Lohan has been alive. It was the comment, suggesting she should be spanked, that was troubling. It was more disquieting that he repeated it during another interview after the first utterance garnered negative attention.

One day the youth of Ms. Lohan’s age will be donors. That’s right, they are the next generation of donors. They’ll remember the insensitive comments made and will look to other charities that are more in line with their fond memories. Nonprofits have been trying to find ways to get younger donors since the inception of fundraising. The bottom line is that they don’t become real donors until they become their parents – in a period where nostalgia kicks in.

Will the next generation of donors look back on the telethon with fond memories or will they remember the comments of the “older generation?”

Jerry is an honorable guy. He stands up for those who need help. Stories of what he quietly does for people not associated with MDA are legend. Unfortunately, neuromuscular diseases will not be defeated in his lifetime. It’s probably going to be another dozen years, if not more. It would be a shame if he doesn’t tailor himself for the next generation of donors and find a way to make room for them.

Dennis James was an exemplary human being. An announcer and game show host at the dawn of television, he was hosting a telethon for United Cerebral Palsy before Jerry started his extravaganzas. Does anyone younger than the age of 55 remember those broadcasts? Probably not.

Telethons need a mission – curing something – and personality to keep it going. Telethons are personality-driven. Look at what Stand Up To Cancer has accomplished on its two, one-hour televisions events, raising close to $200 million.

Viewers are not going to sit and watch doctors talk about medical progress. They want to be entertained. Jerry understood the genius of that formula from the very beginning. Now he needs to put a plan in place to embrace the next generation of donors. NPT

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