In 2009, at age 16, Jillian Gorman was diagnosed with an aggressive form of blood cancer with a five-year survival rate of less than 50 percent for children. Jillian and her family endured three and half years of grueling treatments. Despite three hopeful periods of remission, Jillian eventually lost her valiant battle with the disease on March 3, 2013.
The Jillian Fund was founded in July 2013 by Jillian’s father, George Gorman, dealer business manager at Ricoh Americas Corp., along with Bill McLaughlin, CTO at Atlantic, Tomorrow’s Office. The Jillian Fund Gala has become a well-known event in the imaging industry — more than $1.2 million has been raised over four years. We sat down recently to talk to McLaughlin.
How did you first get involved with the Jillian Fund?
George was in my office shortly after Jillian had passed. We were talking, and I said to him, “George, if you ever want to do something to raise money in Jillian’s name, I’ll help you.” Then George told me about “the promise.” You may have heard us refer to it — George made the promise to Jillian that once she got better, they were going to continue to help the kids in the Pediatric Intensive Care Unit (PICU). While Jillian was going through treatment, George was able to be with her all the time. He was fortunate to have a structure around him — he had the empathy and understanding of his coworkers and of Ricoh.
During that time, George, just being the type of person that he is, became a vehicle of information to the parents who couldn’t be there, not because they didn’t want to, but because they couldn’t. George was basically Uncle George to all the kids and a big support to the parents. Jillian was the big sister who was helping to take care of the kids and trying to keep them positive. Jillian mentioned to her dad that it would be great if they could continue to help these families when she got out of the PICU.
When George told me that story, that’s when a light bulb when off, and I called him several hours later and I told him that I thought we had something here. I felt that the story was almost like a marketing plan — the fact that this conversation took place, that this was what he wanted to do — both Jillian and George saw that there was a real need, and they actually lived it. I told George that we should get a group of people together and get some other thoughts and opinions.
We gathered about 20 of our personal friends together who we do business with and brought them to a friend’s restaurant, and we pitched our idea, and walked out of the restaurant with $25,000.
Then George and I went to the hospital, where George had cultivated many good relationships with the doctors and social workers. I also happened to have some friends who were senior executives at the hospital. We called them, got both sides of the table together and explained what we were looking to do. The support was immediate.
What a great story! Your fund is famous for the gala fundraiser you hold every year and I have been fortunate enough to have attended for a few years now. How many people were in attendance at this last one?
At the very first one, we had 300 people. Then it grew to 500 people and in its third year, it went to almost 600 people. This last one ballooned to 780 people. We raised $350,000 at the event!
That’s amazing! Are you interested in growing it beyond that number? It seems like such a big number — what’s next for you? Do you want 1,500 next year? What are your goals?
Each and every year, our board gets together and does an analysis, and take a look at what worked, what didn’t work, and determine what can we do better. That allows us to adjust for the next year. We talked about this last year a little bit already. It probably isn’t wise for us to get any bigger right now. We certainly don’t want to grow out of our lovely venue! We’d like to look at how we can maximize and leverage our dollars with the audience that we have.
In addition, our board members do not receive any form of compensation. We all have our day jobs. To make the event bigger would require more of our time, but more importantly, we’d start having to hire people. What’s most important for our mission is to maximize the dollars that actually go to the families. While we may raise more money with a larger event, it could end up being that less dollars go to the families due to a larger cost and administrative burden.
To what do you attribute this great momentum that the Jillian Fund has?
I truly believe that when you have something that’s happened the way that this has, and you have a group of good people who are all involved for the right reasons – it’s not selfishness, it’s not about them, it’s about the mission and it’s about the cause – people see that, people feel it, and people want to be a part of it. I think there’s a bit of karma involved, as crazy as that may sound. I also think that once people have come for the first time, they come back and we have seen it because we track it. People who came last year now buy their own table the next year, or bring six of their friends, or buy two tables. One company that came last year bought three tables this year.
I also think it’s tangible. I think that’s one of our major differentiators. It’s tangible and transparent. If you were to donate to some of the famous national or international charities, they are great causes of course, but you don’t typically get to see and feel where your money goes. You’re doing a good thing, you’re donating, you get your tax write off and you see the commercials and that’s it. If you also read the fine print, sometimes just a small percentage of what you’re donating actually goes to the cause itself, versus the administrative costs. With the Jillian Fund, on the other hand, there is an immediate and transparent need. You see it, you hear from the families. You listen to the stories and you meet some of the individuals at the event. It’s so tangible and it’s so real, and people feel so good about it.
If it doesn’t make strategic sense to grow the event at this stage, are you thinking about other activities that you want to do?
We’re big proponents of keeping it simple. We don’t want to start mixing our message, start trying to expand, then get too big and fizzle out. We’ve seen that happen. We’ve gotten very sound advice from the hospital on what to do versus what not to do, and they’ve given us examples of organizations that came in and tried to get too big, too quick once they started gaining some success. We want to stick to our message, we want to maximize our dollars.
Let’s talk a little about Hackensack University. You mentioned that when you were organizing this, their input was very important. The quality of their mentorship impresses me. They were able to share best practices so you could know how to structure your organization, and you could use their input as guidance and to help provide focus. That’s an incredible resource for you as you go along this journey, giving you some actual data that you can deploy in justifying spending decisions to the board, using their guidance in your fundraising efforts and incorporating their statistics and data for marketing purposes. Are there additional roles the hospital serves? How do the parties interact with each other?
You have the hospital and then you have the foundation. We work directly with the foundation. The foundation is the entity that is responsible for all charitable endeavors, so is basically the nonprofit side of things. It is called Hackensack University Medical Center Foundation.
The social workers work with the Hackensack foundation, and then at the Jillian Fund we have a committee that’s made up of some of our board members. The foundation gathers different cases of families that need support, and they present them to our family committee, who selects the families that we’re going to help. We provide the foundation money, and then the foundation disperses the funds.
It’s important to note that we do not give any money to the families directly, nor does the foundation. If a family needs help to pay their mortgage and utilities in a specific month, the money would go directly to the bank/mortgage company and same for the utilities. The assistance is being distributed directly to the financial institutions or service institutions.
Many times, the families that we’re helping only need a month or two of assistance. Helping for that short period makes a huge difference for them. They don’t get behind on their bills. They are able to do the important things. We had a case recently where a family lived in New Jersey, but their child had to go for specialized treatments in Texas. We funded the trip for the family. We did that because we didn’t think a child who was 10 years old should have to travel to Texas alone, nor go through their treatments alone without the support of their family there.
This foundation obviously means a lot to you. You’re a co-founder, you clearly invest a lot of time and energy into this. Can you try to explain to us how this fits into your universe?
It’s hard to explain. It just feels right and it feels good, and it’s very fulfilling.. To see the impact that we, that a group of people, not just a board, this ecosystem that we’ve created, this community we created…how so many different types of people from so many different areas can all get it, come together and just want to help. Especially when you see all the negative stuff that’s going on, to finally see something where you can put all that aside. It just goes to show you, we all can get along.
How does George view this effort?
This truly has helped George heal. I think it’s given him a different purpose, to be able to have something like this, to have his daughter’s name live on and fulfill a promise in something that he wanted to do for her together. There are no words.
Last question. Is there a message from the Jillian Fund that you’d like people to know?
This is a message from our board, not me, because it truly is that important. We hope that people continue to want to support The Jillian Fund and want to be involved, understand our message, know that we’re not here to change things up – we’re here to be consistent, we’re here to help children and their families in a critical time of need and that’s it.
Some of us have a bigger voice, but everybody’s got a very active role on our board, and we all make decisions together. We all deliver the same message – this is a board that doesn’t argue and is always in lockstep. We’re very big on communication, so that’s important to us. This conversation would be the same from any of us.
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