Jerry Lewis and the MDA Telethon

Of all the trailblazers we’ve highlighted in our “Pioneers of Fundraising” series, Jerry Lewis is probably the most well-known for his impact amongst the broad population.

Starting in 1949 with the very first telethon, Jerry Lewis became enamored with the enormous opportunity and in conjunction with his partner, Dean Martin, appeared to great acclaim.

Following a short donation appeal on their hit radio show, the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) approached Lewis and Martin to host their own telethon. This started in 1952 and would coax the evolution of what would become: MDA: Show of Strength in 1966.


Airing in conjunction with the sunday preceding Labor Day, Jerry Lewis would host the wildly successful event for 44 years, raising $2.45 billion through 2009. What was a large part of its success? Much like Bill Graham who would come later, the event leveraged pop culture icons and their ability to connect to causes. Moreover, the telethon would air for 21.5 hours over the course of the Labor Day holiday. A new idea that has been standardized today. PBS or NPR pledge drives anyone?

Here’s an example: The most successful year of the event was 1976. Why? Frank Sinatra facilitated the reunion of Jerry Lewis and Dean Martin. It caused a stir and helped create an opportunity for awareness of MDA. A little press never hurts. A moment of cultural significance helps even more.

There is no doubt that Jerry Lewis was a different type of pioneer. He was a host, not necessarily the strategic tactician Benjamin Franklin was but his knowledge of the broadcast industry and its reach aided in the creation of one of the most successful fundraising campaigns of all time. It wasn’t until 2011 that Lewis stopped hosting and it remained in rotation up to 2014.  

So today we salute Jerry Lewis and MDA for being pioneers in unlocking television for social impact. They again show us that a little innovation and appropriate processes are key to real growth.





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