By Amy Wenk

A down economy creates a difficult fundraising environment, so instead of appealing to businesses and sponsors who might be struggling, the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society (LLS) Georgia Chapter launched a different kind of fundraiser this year.

The Man & Woman of the Year event is a 10-week program in which young professionals pledge to raise at least $5,000 for the organization, which collects about $7 million annually to research blood cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, Hodgkin’s disease and myeloma.

About 3,000 cases of blood cancer are diagnosed in Georgia each year.

“We are counting on the ingenuity and creativity of some of the brightest young professionals and entrepreneurs in Atlanta to figure out new and fun ways to raise money,” said Buckhead resident Lynn Irvin, the chairman of the board for the chapter and a five-year blood cancer survivor. “This event is based on putting out trust in talented young people — not in ‘asks’ to corporations. I think this is a novel approach to fundraising in Atlanta.”

The man and woman who raise the most money are named the Man and Woman of the Year. The candidates run in honor of the Girl and Boy of the Year: 6-year-old Ava Wenclawiak and 4-year-old Daniel Jackson, who attends High Point Elementary School in Sandy Springs. Both children are leukemia survivors.

Fundraising began April 2 and was due to end June 11 with a finale at the W Atlanta-Buckhead hotel on Peachtree Road. Visit to see the results, which were not available at press time.

Although held by other chapters nationally, this is the first year for the event in Georgia.

“Next year, we plan to be in the top three in the country” in terms of money raised, she said. Her husband, Bob, was selected event chairman and was charged with recruiting competitors. Since Lynn recovered with help from the drug Rituxan, a medicine developed with funds from LLS, the Irvins have been committed to the society’s success.

Bob served in the Georgia House for 15 years, including six as minority leader, and is the board chairman of Common Cause Georgia.

“Because of Bob’s unique experiences in business and politics in Atlanta, he has good contacts with important business, political and social leaders,” Lynn said. “As a result, we have a very impressive group of people in our inaugural class.”

Twelve professionals participated, 10 men and two women. Most are 30 to 40 years old; many live in Buckhead or Sandy Springs.

Besides raising money for blood cancer research, the participants also gain exclusive experiences.

“We want to provide the best opportunity in metro Atlanta for the top young professionals and business leaders,” said Bob, a management consultant with Bridge Strategy Group.

On May 11, the candidates enjoyed breakfast with Gov. Sonny Perdue, Sandy Springs Mayor Eva Galambos and Georgia Chamber of Commerce President George Israel.

Winners gain exposure through media promotions and special outings. For example, former Atlanta Falcon Mike Kenn will take the Man of the Year to a Falcons game, and Secretary of State Karen Handel will treat the Woman of the Year to lunch.

Here is a closer look at the local candidates and their motivations to participate:

• Robert Rearden. A Buckhead resident and lawyer with King & Spalding, Rearden has a family connection to blood cancer that provoked his involvement. His father was diagnosed with leukemia about five years ago but is now in remission.

“I immediately jumped at the chance because it was an opportunity to do something to sort of honor my father and more importantly to reach out to people and continue to spread the word,” said Rearden, who has three daughters. “It seemed like a fun, exciting way to do that.”

He has collected donations mainly through phone calls.

• Alysia Shirley. An information technology and process auditor with PricewaterhouseCoopers, Buckhead resident Shirley lost an 8-year-old niece, Morgan, to lymphoblastic lymphoma in 2006. It was just a few months before she and her family moved to South Korea for Shirley’s work. When she returned home in October, she felt the need to get involved and honor her niece.

“It’s been a really great experience,” said Shirley, who was expecting her second child June 12.

She has conducted events at work and sent e-mail seeking donations. Her mother in Arizona even set a jar out at her fitness center.

• John Montgomery. The investment adviser with UBS Financial Services and Buckhead resident was looking for a charitable endeavor when Bob called in the fall. He eagerly agreed because his grandmother died of lymphoma.

“Since then, I just had met too many people who had either leukemia or lymphoma,” said Montgomery, who first focused on large donations from affluent families across the country.

He soon learned “the importance for donors to give to those within their communities.”

Montgomery regrouped and narrowed his sights through e-mail and letters. He secured several unusual, high-dollar auction items for the June 11 finale. One package included a vacation on a private yacht that usually charters for $22,000 a week and sleeps eight people. Candidates were credited with the money their auction items raised.

• Brett Virgin. Virgin is a Sandy Springs resident who has been involved with LLS as a two-time participant in the Hike for Discovery program, a sports-training charity event.

The insurance consultant with Peachtree Benefit Group sought online technologies like Facebook to raise money for the effort.

“I wanted everybody to give $25 and spread like a pandemic of giving,” said the father of two girls. “It did work in the fact that I have gotten donations from London, England, to California … from people I have never met.”

• Jonathan T. Colhower. Colhower, a Buckhead resident who works for McKinsey & Co., knows about blood cancer. In November 2007 he was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s disease after undergoing a medical imaging scan for a bicycle accident.

He has since received radiation treatments, and the cancer is in remission.

Colhower’s approach to fundraising centered on a primary event at his house at which he invited “a targeted set of people to write rather large checks.” He also used Facebook.

“I think we did OK,” he said. “I think the economy has been visible in what we were able to raise.”