Donor Spotlight: The Commercial Real Estate 100 Challenge

To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the discovery of insulin, JDRF launched the $100M Campaign to Accelerate – a bold initiative to help finally free people from the monster that is type 1 diabetes (T1D). Though the pandemic posed challenges across industry, individuals working in commercial real estate came together to help JDRF achieve its ambitious fundraising goal.

JDRF volunteer John O’Bryan initiated the 100 Challenge asking 100 leaders from the commercial real estate sector to each contribute towards a $1 million goal. Together with campaign volunteers Yogini Narine, Vanessa Oliver, Fred Rubinoff, Peter Senst, and Chris Tambakis, along with more than 100 of their fellow colleagues across Canada, they succeeded!

Their contributions will be matched as part of JDRF’s partnership with the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). The result is an incredible $2 million to fund the path to a cure for T1D.

JDRF was able to talk to John about what drove him to organize this challenge, and why helping to slay the T1D monster is so important to him and his fellow volunteers.

*Please note that some of the answers have been edited for clarity and length.

JDRF: How did you get involved with JDRF?

John O’Bryan: I have no personal connection with diabetes. With me, it was more that as an organization (CBRE) where I was the chairman and am now still the honorary chairman, they were very committed to the Ride. I got involved in the first year and really enjoyed it – enjoyed the people, enjoyed the event, I enjoyed bringing together lots of different people in the industry. And then Dave (Prowten, JDRF President & CEO) gave me a call just before Christmas and spoke to me about your plans for the 100th anniversary. Based on that conversation, I became involved with the Campaign to Accelerate.

JDRF: How did the idea for the 100 Challenge campaign come about?

John O’Bryan: I understood the significance of the 100th anniversary, and so the fact that the $100 million goal was synchronistic with the nature of the number wasn’t lost on me. And it was certainly not an unambitious number.

I came up with this concept of the 100, which was to try and get 100 real estate executives to contribute towards a $1 million goal. I then went back to Dave and laid out the whole campaign for the 100 to see if it was something he felt that JDRF could embrace.

JDRF: How did you manage to do it so quickly?

John O’Bryan: I chatted with a couple of friends of mine. Ken Silva at CBRE said “If you embark on this campaign, I’m in.” And Yogini Narine on his executive team jumped on board and said, “whatever logistical help you need, I’ll help.” They were very supportive and instrumental in helping me out.

What I wanted to do was engage people on the fundraising side of JDRF, the volunteers who are in the real estate business – Chris Tambakis, Vanessa Oliver and Fred Rubinoff, all of whom I knew.  And I tried to come up with a list of names and tried to get the number to about 50. We went from Newfoundland to BC, and I think in every province in Canada, we got representation.

The idea was not to engage companies but to engage people. These were quintessentially personal donations. But basically, an entire industry rallied around this campaign and so I thought it would inspire others.

I think due to the pandemic, people were ready to embrace things that were helpful. I think it was at a time when there was certainly a very receptive audience for this message.

The speed, to be honest with you, did surprise me. I think that was a combination of the cause, the relationship we had with those individuals, but most of all, it was the real estate community. I’ve been in this industry since 1972. It has always been and has accelerated over the years to be a wonderfully warm community. It welcomed me in as an immigrant, and it has grown to a point now where it’s a major force for good. 

JDRF: Why is this particular 100 Challenge campaign unique?

John O’Bryan: To some extent, I don’t think it is. One of things that I’ve noticed when your life has been touched by tragedy like cancer, heart disease, diabetes, you become very committed to the cause and sometimes it’s hard to understand why other people aren’t as committed as you are. And obviously it’s simple when you stand back, which is that they’ve got causes that speak to them.

The easier part of the conversations I had was that you really don’t have to explain diabetes to anybody. If it hasn’t touched your family, it has certainly touched people around us. There were times when I got off the phone and I might have had another call scheduled, but I had to cancel a couple of them because they were very emotional calls.

JDRF: What’s your hope for the Campaign to Accelerate?

John O’Bryan: The hope is that we can move the dial for people. The hope is – all research takes twists and turns and nothing is ever easy when you’re working with diseases – but you just want to make people’s lives better.

If you live in Canada and you’ve achieved any sort of success in your business, you’re such a small fraction of both the population of Canada and more importantly, of the planet. You’re in such a privileged position. It’s something that I think lots of people feel and believe and we’re all looking for ways and outlets to express that. And it’s to give back. I can’t think of a better expression than to pay it forward. Help other people. Just do your best to reach out and help.

With this campaign, you’re trying to raise $100 million, and you start with $10,000. That’s the essence of it. You must start somewhere. That to me, was the whole rationale behind the 100 Challenge campaign. If you can raise $1 million, you’ve only got 99 to go. And then when the other campaigns started to lift off, you might be able to make a significant dent in $100 million. People were very happy to contribute en masse.

JDRF thanks John O’Bryan and his co-contributors in the commercial real estate industry for their incredible contribution to the Campaign to Accelerate. The matched donation will contribute $2 million towards vital type 1 diabetes research. John hopes to spur other industries to hold similar challenges of their own.

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