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The Rise, Fall, and Evolution of the Telethon

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Most people are very familiar with the concept of a telethon, a word coined to combine "television" and "marathon." It’s a televised fundraising event, lasting many hours or even days, in order to raise money for a charitable or other worthy cause by combining a variety show or television production with solicitations for pledges from the viewing audiences. The first national telethon was hosted by Milton Berle in 1949, raising $1.1 million for the Damon Runyon Cancer Research Foundation over the course of 16 hours. Because the idea worked, the concept spread quickly and today examples of telethons can be found around the world.

One of the key factors in a successful telethon is, of course, volunteer involvement – and the presence of volunteers is frequently acknowledged on air. The celebrities who perform during the show donate their time, so they are certainly volunteers. The people who answer the telephones to accept pledges are all volunteers. And they are just the tip of the iceberg of people running special event fundraisers in conjunction with the telethon.

Over time, many factors have changed the impact of telethons, most critically the ability of the Internet to spread the word more broadly than television, with much less effort and cost. This Voices article shares this telethon evolution and reviews how volunteers continue to be part of the process.