By Sarah B Lange under Fundraising, Philanthropy Stories on February 11, 2021

Did you know that the cure for polio was made possible by PHILANTHROPY?

It’s true!

Until 1955, polio was a devastating, contagious disease that affected about 30,000 people in the US each year – most of them children. Approximately 16,000 of those were paralyzed. Thousands ended up in leg braces and wheelchairs. Others ended up in an iron lung — a sealed container that kept the patient alive, but unable to move. For those that recovered, many faced Adult Post-Polio Syndrome, which included muscle and joint pain, fatigue, respiratory problems, and loss of muscle strength.

Research was desperately needed, but there were less than 40 virologists in the US, and only a few were focused on polio. It wasn’t until President Franklin D. Roosevelt got the disease as an adult that things changed. He leant his name and leadership to transform a small, private organization into the National Foundation for Infant Paralysis (NFIP). They began raising money in 1938. Their strategy? To ask for dimes.

The idea captured people’s imaginations, and money started pouring in. People would collect dimes in cans, throw tarps on a basketball court at half time to collect change thrown from the stands, and devise other creative strategies to collect loose change. Disney created an ad, featuring the Seven Dwarfs, which helped raise more money than any other health-related campaign to date.

In 1940, they raised $3M. By 1953, it was over $50M (today, that would be $487,779,026)! Much of this money came from masses of smaller donors, some of whom contributed as little as a dime (that would be $1.85 today)! In fact, the year that Jonas Salk announced he’d invented the polio vaccine, 80 million people made contributions! These donations were 25 times the amount of funding given to polio by the NIH! If it weren’t for all those dimes (the organization later rebranded itself the March of Dimes), Jonas Salk might never have found a cure!

This story demonstrates the power of one citizen – and many citizens – to improve the world. It was the 1st time people were asked to directly support science, and they stepped up in a huge way. The goal was clear – to eradicate the disease. They were successful because the NFIP was able to connect the dots between the interests of the scientists and the donors themselves – both wanted to vaccine ASAP!

Between 1938-1959, the NFIP spent $315M on direct support for victims, $55M on research, $33M on fellow

ships, education and training of medical practitioners. The investment of the NFIP resulted in a trained and educated pool of: 372 researchers, 288 physicians, 2,674 physical therapists, 778 medical social workers, 143 nurse supervisors, 62 physical and occupational therapist supervisors and 3,118 other health-related professionals.

Beyond that, the NFIP (now the March of Dimes) changed philanthropy! Thanks to their efforts — and their success — citizens raising money for disease research is now the norm. Think: Susan Komen, the American Heart Association, the Muscular Dystrophy Association (anyone here old enough to remember those Jerry Lewis phone-a-thons?), etc. There are now hundreds of support organizations appealing for funds using the approach and structures created by the NFIP! Talk about impact!

SO – How can you inspire YOUR donors to throw loose change at you during half time? And how can I help you get there?

Stay tuned for more stories of innovations that have been Powered by Philanthropy!

Meanwhile, if you’re facing a challenge or have a burning question that needs to be answered, you can book a free 15-minute Pick My Brain Session by clicking here.


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