by Meridith Levinson

GM CIO Raises Over $1.5m for American Heart Association

Apr 20, 20075 mins

Ralph Szygenda is ready for a break. Not because his company, General Motors, narrowed its net loss in 2006 to $2 billion, from $10.4 billion the prior year.  Not because the CIO has a massive, $15 billion IT outsourcing and transformation initiative under his belt. Szygenda is ready to breathe a sigh of relief because he has exceeded a personal goal of successfully helping to raise over $1.5 million for the American Heart Association. In the process, he’s shown that CIOs can be major forces in non-profit fundraising efforts.

On Saturday, April 21, 2007, Szygenda and his wife Shelby are hosting the American Heart Association’s 20th annual metropolitan Detroit Heart of the City fundraiser ball, which is being held at the Renaissance Center Marriott Hotel. Mr. and Mrs. Szygenda have been working on organizing the gala over the past 12 months. Mr. Szygenda has rounded up 30 Detroit-area movers and shakers to solicit donations and sign on sponsors for the event, while Mrs. Szygenda has taken charge of the silent auction that will be held during the black-tie event. The couple is co-chairing the event, and Mr. Szygenda is quick to note that “chair” is not an honorary title; they’ve had to work. “I’ve had meetings every two weeks if not weekly for a year. I’ve been involved in every aspect of planning the event,” he says.

The American Heart Association asked Mr. Szygenda two years ago if he would chair the event. He accepted the offer because the charity is literally near and dear to his heart.  “I’m 58 years old. I have a cardiologist. There comes a time when your mortality comes into question,” he says.

Cardiac problems run in Mr. Szygenda’s family. He says his father died of a heart condition 28 years ago. “I was with him when he had his first heart attack. His doctor told me that there was nothing I could do. It’s difficult for a son to hear that he can’t do anything to help his father,” he says. 

Mr. Szygenda says the American Heart Association came to him because he’s active in the greater Detroit community and is on a first name basis with many leaders in local government, labor, academia and business. “I’m known in Detroit for getting things done,” he says.

The American Heart Association

also singled him out for his many IT industry contacts. The non-profit knew raising money in America’s “rust belt” wasn’t going to be easy, what with the hit car manufacturers like GM have taken in the past few years and the impact of those hits on the community. The Heart Association needed someone like Mr. Szygenda who knew a lot of people with deep pockets outside of Detroit.   

Mr. Szygenda has more than delivered for the American Heart Association. The CIO personally sent letters to his contacts in the IT industry asking them if they would help sponsor the event. Several of GM’s major technology providers, including AT&T, EDS, HP, IBM, SAP and Microsoft, signed on as sponsors. Mr. Szygenda was the first Detroit Heart Ball chair to involve so many technology companies, and he insists that he didn’t have to shake anyone down for money. “All I did was send out a letter asking them. After that, I have not talked to any of them directly,” he says.  And since he had already bid out GM’s technology contracts, he says his vendors had nothing to gain from supporting his fundraising efforts other than his good will.  “When you’re trying to save lives, it doesn’t matter where the money comes from,” he says.

The money didn’t just come from IT. Mr. Szygenda got GM’s general counsel, Robert Osborne, and former Detroit Mayer Dennis Archer, who’s now managing partner of a prominent law firm in the motor city, to request donations from the legal industry. He asked Frank Taylor, a local restaurateur, and former Detroit Lion Robert Porshe to contact their friends in the sports, entertainment and culinary worlds for funding. Banks, car dealerships, labor unions and individual donors also pitched in.

Thanks to the Szygendas’ connections and project management skills, the Detroit Heart Ball has currently raised over $1.5 million—exceeding the record of $906,000 the Motor City raised at last year’s event. The home of Motown, Eminem and Iggy Pop has also surpassed Boston’s Heart Ball event in terms of funds raised, and more money is due to flow in Saturday night, as attendees bid on such silent auction items as GM cars, tickets to a Tracey Reese fashion show in NYC, a round of golf with Phil Mickelson and a Napa Valley tour.  

Mr. Szygenda is a little anxious about tomorrow night,

but overall he’s very proud of what he’s helped accomplished. He hopes that charitable institutions start turning to CIOs more often to help with their fundraising efforts. He’s pretty confident that he’ll be receiving more calls from Detroit charities asking him to chair their events based on the success he’s had with the Heart Ball.

“I don’t want to chair every event, but if I can relate to the charity, I’d do it again,” he says—but not before a short break from all the activity. “I’m a little tired. I need a week or two off, then I’ll discuss opportunities with other charities.”