MDA Hopes To Transition Volunteers To Non-Telethon Duties

September 4, 2012       Patrick Sullivan      

There was no chance of a donor calling in to the Muscular Dystrophy Association’s (MDA) annual Labor Day telethon and being lucky enough to talk to a famous volunteer. Local and on-air watched national phone banks were eliminated, with telephone operations centralized and in-bound calls handled by centers in the Midwest.

With no need for volunteers to be answering phones, there were between 500 and 1,000 fewer for this year’s telethon compared to last year. The drastic changes to the telethon in 2011 and 2012 are all part of MDA’s rebranding effort, according to Executive Vice President of Business Development Kevin Moran. “We’re asking loyal volunteers to support us in different ways,” he said.

Janis Cochran Test of Abilene, Texas, a MDA volunteer since the early 80s, said wasn’t going to miss falling asleep at her local television station while she’s waiting for donations to come in, like she often did when the telethon lasted all day. Other than that, she isn’t crazy about the new format.

“I understand creating economies of scale, but I think a lot of the magic is gone,” she said. As master tote, the person who tallies up the donations for the board, she’ll still have a role to play during the telethon, but she said there were about 30 fewer volunteers in 2011 than in 2010.

Former volunteers who suddenly have Labor Day free can help the organization in other ways. MDA needs about 3,000 volunteers per year for its 90 summer camps and the organization is pushing its Muscle Walks, fundraiser walkathons started in 2010.

Muscle Walks are not like the standard charity walk/run. The Tucson, Ariz.-based MDA caters to people suffering from muscle diseases such as muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig’s Disease (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis or ALS) whose mobility is limited and who are often confined to wheelchairs, making strenuous activities difficult or impossible. Muscle Walks are low-impact, noncompetitive events, usually a mile or less in distance.

The events are indoors, often in stadiums or malls. “We pick inside locations because there’s no weather and it’s more intimate,” said Moran. Indoor locations have another bonus in that they can be held during colder months. Muscle Walks won’t have to compete with other charity walks, which mostly take place in the spring and fall, and “it’s something to look forward to after the holidays,” said Moran.

Some 26 Muscle Walks have been announced for the rest of this year through the first quarter of 2013. Each has a fundraising goal, from as little as $10,000 to as much as $150,000. In 2011, MDA raised more than $6.5 million through the walks. Dallas was the site of the first Muscle Walk in 2010 and last year drew 5,000 participants. In all, about 50,000 people participated last year, according to MDA.

The telethon was vastly different from what the MDA traditionally has done, revamping the format last year from the traditional 21-1/2-hour telethon to six hours. While the 2011 version had both live and taped elements, this year local cutaways were live but the national show was pre-recorded.

The telethon raised $58.9 million in 2010, the last year of the all-day format, which began in 1966. The MDA netted $139 million, or 78 percent of its revenue, from special events including the telethon in the fiscal year ending December 2010.

MDA did not announce how much was earned during the new 3-hour format. Some $61.5 million was reportedly pledged during last year’s shortened version. That figure includes a pre-telethon mailing to get early pledges, as well as special events, which MDA counted with the telethon itself. Dollars collected often are slightly less than the total pledged.

MDA did not expect this year’s broadcast to garner the same amount of money, but the organization will leverage the exposure and momentum of the telethon to kick off a fourth-quarter campaign that will include grassroots fundraising efforts and sponsor contributions. This year MDA is trying for more of a post-event push, rather than a pre-event push like in 2011, according to Executive Vice President of Business Development Kevin Moran.

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