Minnetonka-based Brain Tumor Fundraiser

A Minnetonka-based fundraiser grows each year with leadership that knows the cause all too well.
Joelle Syverson, Tracy King and Matthew Thurber are three of the planners behind the annual event.

You can add a few zeros to what the fundraising goal was in the first year of Humor to Fight the Tumor, and what has been achieved in eight years of the Minnetonka-based gala to help fight brain tumors.

Minnetonka resident Joelle Syverson, who was diagnosed with a brain tumor in 2001, set a modest goal of raising $10,000 for the one-night event in 2003. They brought in $90,000 the first year, have grown every year since and after hauling in $211,000 in 2010, Humor to Fight the Tumor has amassed more than $1 million. “It has momentum that can’t be stopped, it seems,” Syverson says.

The annual event—which features comedy acts, live and silent auctions, guest speakers and survivor honorees—wants to educate attendees while lightening the mood and contributing to the American Brain Tumor Association. The event draws around 550 people to The Depot in Minneapolis each September without the aid of promotion or advertising, Syverson says.

She says the gala has grown every year due to word-of-mouth, but a driving force is the engine of four dedicated volunteers: two brain tumor survivors and two caregivers to family members with brain tumors. “With four people that are affected by it, you have so much passion involved,” Syverson says. “I just think that drives the success.”

Volunteer ranks have grown from 10 in 2004 to more than 20 this year—due, in part, to the impact the illness can have on families and friends. “Everyone on the committee is on it because they have simply been touched in one way or another,” says volunteer Nancy Steinke, who lost a sister-in-law and a high school friend to the disease.

But the organization relies on the two survivors, Syverson and Matthew Thurber, and two caregivers, Kristin Gray and Tracy King, for the bulk of the work.

“We are a fragile little group,” Syverson says. “Over the years, people have had to step out of certain roles and then someone else will jump in; it’s not an ideal way to run an organization. Every year, we don’t know who is going to experience a recurrence or experience difficulty with it, but most of the time, people put the weight on and we make it happen.”

Syverson makes it happen, regardless of her precarious health. She has had three surgeries to remove her tumor, but it has advanced to the motor skills area of her brain, making it inoperable. To keep fighting, she went through a year of chemotherapy in 2009. A routine checkup in June showed that the tumor is stable. “It’s going to keep coming back, and we are going to keep dealing with it,” Syverson says.

To make it a seven-figure event, Humor to Fight the Tumor has sponsorship deals with many Minnetonka businesses. Signature Bank, owned by Syverson’s husband, Leif, and Ken Brooks, generates 25 percent of the sponsorships through its customers and clients, Syverson says.

“If it wasn’t for my husband and his business partner, I really don’t think the initial success of our event would have taken off like it did,” she says. “All that they do is very supportive of the event.”

Another local company, SCICOM Data Services, was the event’s top sponsor in the first year and continues to contribute each year. The Minnetonka business has been with the event from its start in a small hotel meeting room and followed it to a large banquet hall. 

“Our support of Humor to Fight the Tumor is [recognition] of their long-standing service to our community and the value of their mission,” says CFO and CEO Timothy Johnson. “Humor to Fight the Tumor has truly impressed us, and we appreciate our opportunity to contribute to this worthy organization.

In the end, credit for the success of Humor to Fight the Tumor finds its way back to Syverson. “For her to have to fight what she is fighting and to continue on with such a positive attitude, she just draws people in to her,” Steinke says.

Syverson, a mother of three, has a more modest summation: “I’m just a stay-at-home mom trying to make a difference in people’s lives with brain cancer.”

Eighth Annual Humor to Fight the Tumor

September 24

The Depot, Minneapolis