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How Muscular Dystrophy Association Raised Millions by Reimagining Their Telethon

By Rob Acker November 23, 2020

What do you do when your fundraising events have to be entirely reimagined? 

That’s the unenviable reality for many nonprofits around the world that have had to scramble to find creative alternatives to their in-person fundraisers during the coronavirus pandemic. These fundraisers by healthcare nonprofits have supported scientific research, care, advocacy, and more, ultimately changing countless lives of people in their communities. 

For the team at the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) — the nonprofit dedicated to transforming the lives of people with muscular dystrophy, ALS, and 40+ related diseases — COVID-19 brought many changes and led to a bold pivot to prepare the organization for a stronger long-term future.

The pandemic has been hard for everyone, but it’s been especially hard for the people MDA supports — members of the disability and neuromuscular disease community — who are among the most vulnerable. When the pandemic hit, it was imperative that MDA be able to continue to serve this population who depends on them.

Reimagining a Classic

MDA held the very first televised telethon for a cause almost fifty-four years ago, hosted by Jerry Lewis on Labor Day. This became an iconic part of the MDA brand, but for a variety of reasons the telethon was canceled in 2015. For 2020, MDA signed on comedian Kevin Hart to host a reimagined version of MDA’s legendary telethon, reviving both the idea itself and the chance to recover critical donations. As a proud MDA advocate, I was honored to represent Salesforce and share the virtual stage with Kevin during the telethon. 

Comedian Kevin Hart and CEO Rob Acker CEO, Rob Acker, joined Kevin Hart on the MDA telethon.

Salesforce supported the MDA team in building a comprehensive digital framework of integrated donation platforms and robust analytics for the telethon. Having used the Nonprofit Success Pack since 2018 for things like sales reporting and management, the telethon gave MDA the opportunity to expand their focus and utilize Salesforce technologies, like Tableau, Heroku, Social Studio, and Command Center. They used these tools to create executive dashboards that provided a consolidated, near real-time view of incoming donations across channels as well as social media activity throughout the telethon.

It was the beginning of MDA’s partnership with Nonprofit Cloud back in 2018 when they started the digital transformation that set the foundation for them to pull off a virtual telethon of this magnitude — one that turned out to be a huge success, netting millions in critical funds for the organization. 

That initial investment in technology was foundational to MDA’s resilience through the pandemic, and it’s their doubling down of that investment this year that will enable them to scale impact for years to come.

Going All-in on Tech

If there are any silver linings to be found from this year, it’s that MDA is more confident in their future than they’ve ever been. By doubling down on technology and becoming more digitally-driven in their  care programs, they have seen that technology offers seemingly endless opportunities to improve upon their original model. 

Data gave the MDA team important insights to make big decisions early on in the pandemic. The biggest was a swift decision to go virtual — not just in fundraising events, but also in their care centers. Setting up virtual care centers to provide critical accessibility for an at-risk population allowed the organization to provide even better, more individualized care.

As for events, it’s hard to know when in-person events will be safe again. So creating a new, replicable fundraising model that makes use of MDA’s digital transformation infrastructure is a deliberate long-term plan. In order to have a sustainable fundraising strategy, you need excellent donor engagement. But engaging donors doesn’t matter much without a seamless interface to facilitate that support when they’re ready to give.

Salesforce is proud to partner with MDA to help the organization achieve their goals and continue their vital fundraising efforts. Whether at the telethon or in other fundraising events, MDA captures donor information that can be pushed over to Marketing Cloud for future use. And with this technology, they are able to use their data to see the big picture. The organization can tap into comprehensive profiles for donors, clients, and prospective supporters, allowing them to personalize their outreach, marketing, and communications efforts.  

MDA telethon graphic
The Kevin Hart-hosted MDA telethon raised more than $10 million.

Agility, Adaptability, and Accessibility

Between the pandemic and the concurrent recession, it’s estimated that up to a third of all nonprofits won’t make it through this year. The ability to make quick, data-informed decisions was integral for the MDA team. 

With the data they’ve been collecting for years, the organization had the information needed to make data-informed decisions early on. By April, the MDA team knew they couldn’t afford to wait and see how things played out. Within two weeks, they’d transferred important donor data to Salesforce and could begin thinking about how to harness that information to reimagine fundraising events later in the year. 

And reimagine them they did. By the time the telethon rolled around in late October, they had a state-of-the-art digital framework made up of integrated donation platforms and real-time analytics. 

Boy sitting in wheelchair
MDA National Ambassador Ethan LyBrand in his Bumblebee wheelchair.

Having the tools to not only make these decisions, but to act on them, was lifesaving. Now that MDA has done the hard work of digitally transforming their operations through a global pandemic, the sky's the limit. 

Learn more about MDA’s work and how you can reimagine your fundraising events.

About the Author

Rob Acker, CEO Rob Acker CEO,

Rob leads, a social impact center at Salesforce. focuses on delivering world-class technology to nonprofits and higher education customers.