If you’re under 35, you may never have heard of the Jerry Lewis Telethon. But back in the day, it rocked my world. The telethon was an annual marathon television event that raised millions for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, hosted live with schmaltz and sentimentality by Jerry Lewis. Stringing together celebrities, performances and telephones every Labor Day for 46 years, Lewis created an exciting and exhausting extravaganza that coaxed dollars out of wallets for a good cause. I was glued to my TV every year for this event, and it’s what first inspired me to become a philanthropist.
When the telethon was eventually shortened from more than 20 hours to six, then three, and then finally canceled altogether, an era was lost. Audience habits had changed, TV had changed, technology had changed, and Jerry Lewis no longer made sense in a 140-character world. Nowadays, traditional telethons barely exist, except for the exceedingly rare TV special that can summon the gigantic budgets to mount such an effort, like StandUp to Cancer.
Our viewing habits are far more fractured than they once were and it’s impossible to recapture the audience share of the three network universe of yore. But there are still places where legions of people gather at the same time and can be directed towards philanthropy. Click on Twitch or YouTube and you’ll find millions of users who are livestreaming video games and eSports events, as broadcasters or viewers. Last year, 100 million users watched 16 billion minutes of broadcasts per month on Twitch from 1.5 million unique broadcasters. Some reports list Twitch as the fourth highest-trafficked site in the U.S., behind only Google, Netflix and Apple, sharing more data than other video streamers like Hulu and Amazon.
A few years ago, Michael Wasserman, an experienced fundraiser, was pondering how to captivate those zillions of eyeballs and reinvent the telethon concept for the modern age. “As streaming was starting to grow,” he says, “I was looking at this phenomenon and thinking, ‘these are telethons; they’re just online.’ How can you create a platform that would house these streaming telethons?”
The result of his brainstorming was Tiltify, a platform that creates opportunities for livestreaming to be directed towards charity. (Full disclosure: I'm a shareholder.) Tiltify is ground zero for innovative fundraising ideas, seamlessly integrating with streaming hubs like Twitch and allowing gamers and other viewers to donate live. But what makes this modern telethon so different is that users can interact with each other and celebrities in ways that were never possible in the days of Jerry Lewis. Technology allows users to see their names pop up onscreen as soon as they donate, chat with other viewers, get instantaneous feedback, and affect what is happening on the stream through their participation.
Gamification is an important element of Tiltify. “People will create challenges, like ‘If we make it to $10,000, I’ll shave my head,’” says Wasserman. “It’s streaming, entertainment and charity all in one.”
With some streamers having their own followings of millions, the possibilities for serious fundraising are immense. For the celebrities who get involved, the casual, low-tech experience is an attractive diversion from the grandeur and hoopla of a formal fundraiser. For the streaming viewers, these stream-a-thons are often surprising, giving the audience a rewarding opportunity to see celebrities and influencers in a more intimate and interactive light. For the streaming broadcasters, a livestreaming fundraiser can cast a wider and more positive light on their shows, helping to spread the word about their streams. And for nonprofits, this added channel of fundraising offers an exciting new path towards awareness and engagement.
“Tiltify empowers gamers and makes giving back more of the norm,” notes Wasserman. “Gaming is a $20 billion industry in the U.S. alone. If just 2 percent of that was redirected towards charity, it would offer a staggering boost to good causes around the world.”
With 50 charities currently using Tiltify as a fundraising tool, the next step for the company is to explain this new market to the nonprofit community and show them the possibilities. In the past, mounting any kind of telethon or fundraiser was a massive effort, but livestream fundraising allows you to build an audience and donors with nothing more than a laptop.
“We think this is the future of fundraising,” says Wasserman. “Think of the possibilities. Think about how you can help with disaster relief in a more immediate and resonant way. You can now broadcast very easily from a lot of these areas, people can see what’s going on and be inspired, and people see the changes going forward. You can actually create a conversation and answer questions about what you’re doing to help, all while showing things that are happening live.”
Tiltify is taking the telethon concept to the new century, and in the process creating an equalizer effect. With the rising popularity of reality TV, YouTube and influencers of all stripes, and with the minimal production costs of a stream-a-thon, the barriers to fundraising have now dropped to virtually nothing.