Think small

In 1921, Franklin D Roosevelt contracted polio, he was 39 years old.

He became disabled for life, hardly leaving his wheelchair.

In 1927, he founded the Georgia Warm Springs Foundation to combat polio in children.

But polio was an epidemic and his foundation needed to sound impressive.

So he changed the name to the National Foundation for the Infantile Paralysis.

But it sounded pompous and irrelevant, it couldn’t raise enough funds.

Roosevelt asked Eddie Cantor, one of the biggest stars of the time, to help.

He asked him if he could get everyone in the US to send a dollar towards research.

Cantor said it was the depression, times were tough, nobody had a spare dollar.

Then he joked, maybe he could get everyone to send a dime.

Both men went quiet, the they looked at each other.

A dime was actually more poignant than a dollar, a dime felt more appropriate for helping children, in fact they could ask children for a dime.

They made a cinema commercial, it was due to run before the main feature film.

Usually what ran in that slot was a news round-up called "The March of Time".

They thought they could use that space for their appeal and call it "The March of Dimes".

The public loved it, it felt like thousands of children marching along together to each help in their own little way.

As Eddie Cantor said in the appeal: "Nearly everyone can send a dime. But it takes only 10 dimes to make a dollar and if a million people send only one dime, the total will be $100,000."

The appeal touched the hearts of ordinary people everywhere.

In the first month, the White House received $268,000 in dimes (around $4.6m today).

In his birthday radio broadcast, Franklin D Roosevelt said the following:

"During the past few days, bags of mail have been coming, literally by the truck load, to the White House. Yesterday between forty and fifty thousand letters came to the mail room, today an even greater number. How many I cannot tell you for we can only estimate by counting the stuffed mail bags.

"In all the bags are dimes and quarters and even dollar bills – gifts from grown-ups and children – mostly from children who want to help other children get well.

"It is glorious to have one’s birthday associated with a work like this."

The name "March of Dimes" caught people’s imagination so much that they changed the name from National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis to "March of Dimes".

And it was so successful that it’s still the name 90 years later.

Money flowed in at such a rate that it funded Dr Jonas Salk’s work into finding a vaccine, by 1955, March of Dimes had contributed over $2.2bn.

Just in time too, in 1938 polio cases were 1.3 per 1,000 children. Between 1943 and 1950 it was up to 10 cases per 1,000. Between 1950 and 1956 it doubled to 20 cases per 1,000. In one year, 1952, there were 52,000 cases and 3,000 deaths.

But March of Dimes helped fund the vaccine and by 1962 it dropped to just 1,000 cases.

In 1979, there were no cases at all, in the US.

Since 1988, polio worldwide is down by 99%, and expected to disappear totally.

March of Dimes now funds research into all infant birth defects.

It wasn’t pompous, pretentious language that cured polio.

It was talking to people like human beings, like every little bit, every individual, counted.

It made everyone feel they could do something, it made everyone feel important.

It wasn’t thinking big, it was thinking small.

Dave Trott is the author of Creative Blindness and How to Cure It, Creative Mischief, Predatory Thinking and One Plus One Equals Three


Subscribe today for just $116 a year

Get the very latest news and insight from Campaign with unrestricted access to , plus get exclusive discounts to Campaign events

Become a subscriber


Don’t miss your daily fix of breaking news, latest work, advice and commentary.

register free