Jerry’s Legacy: It Was More Than Just Show Biz

The passing of Jerry Lewis was sad but expected. He had been in failing health for several years. But, it is not the end of an era. The era ended in 2010 when he and the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) parted ways after training the American public about annual giving.

The parting showed fundraisers that Newton’s Third Law of physics does not apply when you change what donors expect. There won’t be an equal but opposite reaction. It will be opposite and far more disproportionate.

Jerry’s last telethon was 2010. MDA’s total revenue that year was $174 million, according to its federal Form 990. He wasn’t there in 2011 and the organization’s total revenue dropped to $156 million. It has declined every year since, hitting $126 million for 2015, the last year for which a Form 990 is available. Expenses declined as the show wound down but you have to wonder how many people remember to send checks now that the telethon, in any of its shapes, was killed off in 2014.

There has been a lot of mystery regarding Jerry’s departure. Neither he nor the organization made official comments. Word leaking from both sides was that there were disagreements regarding the Labor Day Telethon that got out of hand. There’s no doubt that the mercurial Jerry ruled the show with an iron fist as the organization’s national chairman. There had been rumblings for several years that insiders wanted to “modernize” the event, changing many of the elements and that included the show’s length. The stories are legend of how tough it got working with Jerry in those later years. There was also talk of personal services contracts and appearances on behalf of telethon sponsors.

When it came to the show, big money came in from corporate sponsors but the folks sending in money during the show and reacting to what they saw is what made the tote board spin. Jerry spoke to the “Rat Pack” crowd, older Americans who remembered a simpler, more carefree time. Older Americans remain the backbone of direct response giving and they simply can’t be maneuvered. They will move on.

Donors need a personal connection over the long haul, just like staff and volunteers who toil over decades for a cause. Jerry was just such an example. There was always buzz in the nonprofit sector regarding his motivations. The comments were sometimes negative. Because he was in show business people often thought he was playing for the cameras and doing his job, whether it was talking to his “kids” or weeping during his closing number “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” There are even stories that can be categorized as urban legend. The following is not urban legend. There are two solid sources.

Jerry was born in Newark, N.J. The next town over is Irvington. New Jersey is not like Texas where you sometimes drive for 20 minutes or more to get to the next town. The dividing line in some cases is the yellow one going down the middle of the street. In Hudson County, N.J., for example, Guttenberg splits between 71st and 72nd streets, sharing the border with North Bergen. It is usual to have friends across the street who live in a different town, as is the case with Newark and Irvington.

It is true Jerry started in Vaudeville at age 5 but there were family and friends on both sides of the proverbial street. There was a family connection who at some point developed a neuromuscular disease and died. The performer (no age yet tied to this) vowed to make it his life’s work to fund research to stop the scourge.

There are a lot of details he took with him but that’s the gist of the story. A personal connection is everything to the charitable sector, whether it’s cash, devotion or both. Likewise, working in the sector more likely than not also takes a personal connection. Staff members want to be appreciated as they do the work that improves the world one block at a time.

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