The Real Man Behind the Success of the Ice Bucket Challenge

Mystery Man

Who's responsible for the success of the Ice Bucket Challenge? My pick is Jerry Lewis. While others are responsible for the launch and promotion of this very successful fundraiser, Jerry Lewis put muscular dystrophy - of which ALS is one form - on the map.

Lewis' annual MDA Telethon raised BILLIONS over four decades. But, more importantly, Jerry's efforts elevated public awareness of an obscure and rare disease. The organizations that are benefiting from the Ice Bucket Challenge - like the ALS Association - wouldn't be in business if it wasn't for the groundwork Lewis laid.

In addition to putting muscular dystrophy in the public eye, Jerry and the Muscular Dystrophy Association were early practitioners of cause marketing.

This 2010 post from my blog highlights just how forward-thinking Lewis and MDA were. To date, the Ice Bucket Challenge has raised $22 million. Impressive, for sure. Jerry Lewis raised $2.5 billion for people with muscular dystrophy.

Jerry has a thing or two to teach you about fundraising!

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Jerry Lewis and the Muscular Dystrophy Association had a huge influence on my cause marketing career. Growing up during the 70's, The Jerry Lewis Telethon on Labor Day weekend was a big television event! We didn't have the choices on TV that we have today. We had the major networks, a few local stations and that was it. So it wasn't unusual for the family to be gathered around the TV watching the Jerry Lewis Labor Day Telethon.

Then, after college, MDA was my first job. I learned fundraising and worked behind the scenes on the local telethon here in Boston. I even got to travel to the national office, which had recently moved from New York City to Tuscon, Arizona and got to meet some of the founders of the organization. MDA launched my career as a fundraiser and a cause marketer.

While American Express is credited with "discovering" cause marketing, they're more of a "Columbus" in the field. Historians agree that Columbus didn't discover the New World--many came before him--but his return to Europe got people talking like they hadn't before. The same is true of American Express' cause marketing effort for the Statue of Liberty.

But the Vikings of cause marketing were Jerry Lewis and MDA. They were building partnerships between their nonprofit and for profits for mutual profit long before American Express gazed admiringly at the Statue of Liberty.

Pinups have been the backbone of MDA for yearsShamrocks in March are probably their best known program, but there are others. I was always impressed how MDA did Shamrocks with some of the biggest retailers in the country and then at neighborhood bars, restaurants and stores in every community across America. I know this for a fact. During my time with MDA I lugged Shamrocks into every dive bar and hole-in-the-wall restaurant in Boston. No one executes red-blooded fundraising better than MDA. Oh, and those coupons that you always see on my cause marketing pinups, I got the idea from MDA Shamrocks!

The most successful pinup in history, the MDA Shamrock. Learn how to match MDA's success with my Summer Guide to Cause Marketing.

The most successful pinup in history, the MDA Shamrock. Learn how to match MDA's success with my Summer Guide to Cause Marketing.

Telethon has always been a magnet for corporate partners. Even today, the exposure telethon offers is a big draw for companies and is a model for how nonprofits can balance cause marketing with events. Whenever I meet with nonprofits I encourage them to turn their events into cause marketing opportunities for retailers. It extends the sponsorship opportunity for the business and opens a new revenue stream for the nonprofit. It's the very thing we did with Halloween Town, and I learned it all from Jerry and MDA.

Jerry gets the brand thing. MDA is a powerful corporate magnet because early on they focused on the three most important things for cause marketing success: brand, brand, brand. While a terrible disease, fewer than one million people in the United States have muscular dystrophy. But through story-telling, star power and good old-fashioned marketing, Jerry still raises around $60 million over Labor Day weekend every year.

Jerry Lewis and MDA are legends and have more to teach local nonprofits about cause marketing than all the St. Jude's, Product RED's and Komen's of the world.

Jerry should be the poster child for causes that don't think they're mainstream enough for cause marketing, but really just need to tell their story powerfully, emotionally, build their brand and leverage their assets. No funny guy required.