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Monday, April 06, 2020

Beginning in 1966, the annual Labor Day Jerry Lewis Muscular Dystrophy telethon raised upwards of $2.5 billion. During its 45-year life span, it became a staple of regular TV viewing highlighting a parade of celebrities who joined “Jerry’s Kids” to entertain viewers and solicit contributions. Jerry used to say he would be happy if he raised just “one dollar” over the previous year. Yet, he managed to raise quite a bit more.

Luck or maybe something else?

A few years ago Jeanette Senerchia, whose husband was diagnosed with ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, first took what became known as the “Ice Bucket Challenge” but didn’t know what she was about to unleash. Soon the very act of dumping a bucket of ice on your head as a means of raising funds became an overnight viral sensation. It also raised the consciousness of the world and helped scientists discover a new gene tied to ALS. It raised $115 million in 2014, the year it was initiated.

Luck or maybe something else?

Rush Limbaugh, the well-known radio personality, decided to support the Tunnels to Towers Foundation by selling a t-shirt with the original Betsy Ross flag on it. The foundation primarily raises money to pay off the mortgages for families of military, law enforcement or first responders who were either severely injured or killed in action. Limbaugh has raised more than $5 million since the summer, just an amazing response.

Luck or maybe something else?

The list of such fundraisers is limitless. The 39th annual Chabad Telethon recently raised nearly $4 million for their good work on the West Coast. Different Jewish communities around the United States generously support the UJA and Jewish Federation “Super Sunday” fundraisers, which have a history of raising major dollars. According to 3CBS Philly, Super Sunday was the Philadelphia Federation’s largest fundraiser of the year, raising upwards of half a million dollars. The Cleveland Jewish News reported last year that the Jewish Federation in Cleveland raised $1.1 million on Super Sunday. And, according to the SunSentinel, the Greater Miami Jewish Federation raised more than $500,000 in pledged donations to the 2018 Federation/UJA Campaign on Super Sunday.

How do they raise such large sums of money? More importantly, what are the common ingredients for success in big fundraisers? Is it pure luck or maybe something more?

The answer is not complex. All of these activities, and so many more, share crucial commonalities to achieving success. Having raised upwards of $93 million for nonprofits, I can conjecture as to how and why nonprofits do so well.

First, let’s get the “luck” part out of the way. There is indisputably a trace of good fortune involved. Who could forecast that dumping an ice bucket on one’s head would go viral and raise a ton of money? Likewise, who knew that a t-shirt could fetch in the millions? It’s partly luck.

Yet, we can learn some valuable lessons from them. Here are some for starters:

1. Mission. If donors connect with your mission, you’ve won half the battle. The other half is winning their confidence and trust. Accomplishing these two tasks takes time and perseverance.
2. The 6P’s. “Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.” This cardinal rule has guided my career. Even activities tinged with luck require sound organizational planning.
3. Timing. The ice-bucket challenge began in the summer, which also helped propel the craziness. Labor Day was always the time for Jerry’s Kids. Super Sunday is now ingrained in donors’ and volunteers’ minds—folks expect it each year around February.
4. Ma Nishtana factor. Wrong time of the year, but the concept applies. If your fundraiser has unique appeal, it potentially will be a draw. You may recall the case of Carson King, who became a viral sensation when he held up a hand-drawn sign just asking for beer money when he stood on the set of ESPN’s “College GameDay.” He raised nearly $3 million for a children’s hospital in Iowa.
5. Celebrities. Unquestionably, a celebrity asking for money works wonders. Some celebrities who lost homes in the California wildfires joined together to help others whose homes were destroyed. Stars such as Lady Gaga, Gerard Butler and Ellen DeGeneres raised and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to help the cause.
These represent only some reasons why such fundraisers fare well. There are many more. If you are planning a mud marathon or the next Iron Chef cooking competition, or are looking to rappel off a building to raise funds, keep these lessons in mind.

So, do you have good reasons to succeed, or are you just plain lucky?


Norman B. Gildin has fundraised for nonprofits for more than three decades and has raised upwards of $93 million in the process. Formerly a resident of Teaneck for 34 years, he is the president of Strategic Fundraising Group, whose singular mission is to assist nonprofits raise critical funds. He can be reached at [email protected]