MDA Walks Alone

They miss you Jerry.

Last year at this time, the hot news was how the Muscular Dystrophy Association had unceremoniously dumped Jerry Lewis from the organization’s annual Labor Day telethon, it highest profile event and the centerpiece of its fundraising efforts for medical research. The telethon, shortened and without Jerry’s bombast and bathos, went forward, and MDA announced that it had brought in  $61 million, 4 percent more than 2011 when Lewis was still around. I was skeptical.  The MDA had violated core ethics rules that apply all organizations: Never cut yourself off from your roots. Honor your founders. Pay your debts. Keep peace with your past.  An organization that is estranged from its past heroes is estranged from itself.

I wrote, while designating the MDA an Ethics Dunce:

“The MDA owes a huge debt to Jerry Lewis, and doing anything to hurt him or harm him in any way is rank ingratitude. The lesson is an old one: don’t allow someone to become essential to your very existence if you are not willing to grant whatever demand, favor or task he might ask in return. The Godfather might ask you to show your gratitude by whacking a rival don; the Devil will surely want your soul. All Jerry Lewis wanted was to stick around until he decided it was time to go. After 2.5 billion dollars and a lifetime of devotion, the MDA should have let him.”

Or was I wrong? Had the MDA made a clean break with a tradition that had become a millstone  (Jerry was difficult in the best of times;  in his 80’s and more pathetic than funny, he was clearly not going to leave quietly) without giving itself a mortal wound?

No. MDA has  posted its 2011 federal tax form 990 on its website and reveals that it was able to collect just $31 million of the $61 million pledged, the lowest total in years and the lowest percentage of pledges fulfilled in memory. Nobody knows why, but I think a strong argument can be made that without a familiar face on the telethon, it was easier to duck responsibility when the bill came due. Besides, the Association kicked Jerry Lewis to the curb after he had given his life to his “kids.” Who were they to insist that people meet their obligations to them? As Showbiz 411 commented on MDA’s conduct,

“They committed a kind of hari-kari, taking an established brand and flushing it down the toilet. On Sunday night, the so-called remnants of the annual telethon are down to three hours. Almost everything is pre-taped except for local cut ins. The acts have no relationship to the history of the MDA. Because it’s taped, there will be no drama to see if they can top last year. Of course, last year doesn’t really exist since the actually collected $31 million is far below the amounts from preceding years.”

Those who suffer from debilitating neuro-muscular illnesses are the victims of this of course; there are always innocent victims when organizations don’t pay attention to the well-established rules for maintaining trust, integrity, and the appearance of competence. Nowhere are such mistakes more damaging than among non-profit organizations. People give money to organizations they like, and it’s hard to like someone who acts like an ingrate.

The  Muscular Dystrophy Association could have endured one more year or two of Jerry’s cringe-worthy rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Now it’s the MDA that’s walking alone, and its management has no one to blame but itself.


Facts: ShowBiz 411

Graphic: Donna Gore

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at


10 thoughts on “MDA Walks Alone

  1. For what it’s worth, many people with muscular dystrophy have protested Jerry Lewis’s presence for years because of the way he makes them seem too pitiful, rather than people dealing with a bad disease – to quote from an online petition to cancel a humanitarian award he’s won (, “In 1990, Lewis wrote that if he had muscular dystrophy and had to use a wheelchair, he would “just have to learn to try to be good at being a half a person.” During the 1992 Telethon, he said that people with MD, whom he always insists on calling “my kids,” “cannot go into the workplace. There’s nothing they can do.” “

    • It’s not worth much, and if I saw such a petition at the time, I would have written a hard post about it. The MDA is engaged in fundraising, and fundraising for illnesses depends heavily on sympathy, guilt, pity and all the other things that go into charitable urges. Apparently these protesters would rather have their dignity than funds, research and cures. Fundraising is sales in a different form, and when you sell helping those less fortunate than others, you make them appear to be as unfortunate as possible, not as self-reliant as possible. This was an idiotic and offensive attack on Lewis.

      Jerry Lewis was responsible for over a billion dollars in contributions for the welfare of these folks, and their ingratitude rooted in political correctness is inexcusable. They are not half-people, they are full-fledged jerks.

      • So the ethical question is, if you’re benefiting a group with money for research, etc., does it matter that you’re also reinforcing negative stereotypes? For example, a scholarship fund for inner city kids that, in its fundraising, said that they just didn’t have the intellectual capacity to compete with wealthier children without assistance might cause more harm than good in the long run. The difference, of course, is that someone could refuse to accept the scholarship but the muscular dystrophy patients can’t “give back” the research money he’s raised.

        “Apparently these protesters would rather have their dignity than funds, research and cures.”
        Well, yes. Would you trade your dignity, and be called half a human being, for the possibility (a long shot) of a cure? I don’t know if I would. Doesn’t a group deserve to have some say in how they’re portrayed without being called ungrateful? Bearing in mind that people have spoken to Jerry Lewis about this in the past, and he’s dismissed their concerns out of hand.

        • He should. The job is fund-raising, not self-esteem building. Your analogy is off the charts. MD is a disability, no matter how you slice it. Saying so is not reinforcing a negative stereotype. The fundraisers have to tell the truth in stark and arresting ways to make potential givers feel empowered.

          Nobody affects my dignity by what they say about me. I’m not begging. If someone is begging on my behalf personally, yes, I can tell them to stop. If someone is begging on behalf of a larger group that is benefiting, I should swallow my excessive pride in the interest of the group. Pride doesn’t keep you alive.

          “Some say”? Sure, within reasonable bounds. Micromanaging an effective fundraiser’s pitch, however, is not reasonable. The protesters are happy to accept the benefits of Lewis’s fundraising but critical of his manner of acquiring it. They are out of line, not he.

          • The protesters are happy to accept the benefits of Lewis’s fundraising but critical of his manner of acquiring it.

            This seems unfair. The protestors were quite aware of the money Lewis raised, and willing to do without it.

              • True. But that doesn’t make the statement of your I objected to any less false.

                I’m not sure what your point is. Surely it’s not unethical for an disabled-advocacy group (or groups, in this case) to recommend policy changes unless 100% of disabled people are on board? If that was the standard, then no one — not MLK’s group, not anti-slavery groups, not Jewish groups fighting anti-semitism, etc.. – could every legitimately make a stand, since no interest group can ever claim perfect 100% agreement on anything.

                • No, It’s not unethical, it’s just wrong and counter-productive, like most political correctness, and this kind is especially harmful, because it threatens important and effective fundraising. Actually, its your point that seems tangential. This isn’t why MDA dumped Lewis—they dumped him because he was old and feeble, and they weren’t willing to stay with him, and endure the awkwardness, until he left his own way. Nor does it change my point, even if I agreed with the protesters. MDA had a debt it owed to Jerry Lewis, and they failed to observe it, and people are going to suffer as a result.

                  • I worked for MDA for seven years and I can tell you that Telethon is just a symptom of a much larger management issue. Looking at their 990’s it is obvious that they will have no assets left unless they implement some major systematic changes very soon. The problem with MDA is that they don’t know what they want to be, a service organization that does it’s own fundraising, or a fundraising organization that provides local services. Do not forget that while they do fundraise, they are dependent on families to keep them going, whether by acting as advocates/spokespersons, fundraisers or volunteers. I always felt a little uneasy at how often families would be exploited. I think you can raise money AND treat those you serve with dignity. There could have been a classier way to let Jerry Lewis go, but truth be told he was very unpredictable and was insulting to many of MDA’s national sponsors. Additionally, there’s really only one generation left who feels any connection with him – it was time for him to go.

  2. Jerry has always been a bit controversial with a huge ego. However, there is no denying what he did for MDA. To kick the guy to the curb the way they did is mind blowing to say the least. They have more than shot them-self in the foot, they have cut their feet off. I am looking to see how much they raised this weekend and can’t find it anywhere. I bet it isn’t $10 Million.

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