Penny Echenberg was the first chair of the Goodman Cancer Research Centre Gala. She and her team rose to the challenge and raised $2.5 million. Photo credit: McGill University

Take a look behind the scenes of the Goodman Cancer Research Centre’s first biennial Gala with Gala chair Penny Echenberg.

Penny Echenberg’s back was to the wall.

Less than three weeks before the inaugural Goodman Cancer Research Centre Gala in 2010, the guest list surged from less than 500 people to 800. The venue, a large tent built on McGill’s Lower Campus for convocation in early June, would not be available for her team to decorate until just 48 hours before the event.

“It was a logistical nightmare,” Echenberg said. “We were organizing a Gala in an empty tent; a venue that did not have running water, electricity, air conditioning, kitchens or washrooms! We had brought everything in and set it up just as the first guests arrived.”

Echenberg and her team could handle all of those issues – but they couldn’t stop a torrential downpour, which started just as the guests began to arrive.

Despite all of these setbacks, Echenberg’s efforts paid off – literally. The black-tie Gala raised over $2.5 million for the Centre that year to support critical cancer research. The following day, Echenberg got a memorable thank-you. “Roz called me and told me that we had made her dream come true,” she recalled.

The Gala has been a staple of the Centre’s fundraising ever since, and volunteers like Echenberg make the event run smoothly. “It’s like cogs in a wheel. You need everybody’s cooperation and enthusiasm to make that wheel turn and to make it roll,” she noted.
Echenberg remained involved in the Gala after 2010 and accepted the responsibility of chairing the gala again this year “out of love and respect for Roz,” a McGill alumna who lost her battle with cancer in 2014.

“Roz was just someone I would never want to say no to.”

Along with her husband, Morris, Rosalind Goodman’s boundless energy revolutionized the McGill Cancer Centre, renamed in the family’s honour after they made a transformative gift to the then-McGill Cancer Centre in 2008.

Echenberg has embraced the importance of giving back. She has volunteered for Juvenile Diabetes, Auberge Shalom, Mazon and the Cuddles Program at the Montreal Children’s Hospital. But cancer research is a cause particularly close to Echenberg’s heart. Her husband, Gordon, is a survivor of bladder cancer. His fight inspired Echenberg to serve on the committee of the Canadian Cancer Society’s annual Daffodil Ball for 10 years. “When you volunteer, you’re giving of yourself but you get so much more in return,” she said.

A few things have changed for this year’s event. With seven weeks to go, donors have already committed over half of the Gala’s $2.5-million fundraising goal. Echenberg has also made the planning process a little easier; instead of an outdoor venue, donors and attendees will be going to the Hyatt and the Complexe Desjardins for an entirely new ambience and feeling. “Sometimes, it’s nice to change things up,” she noted.

Learn more about the Goodman Cancer Research Gala