When Gilda’s Club went public with the plans for LaughFest in November 2010, Joanne Roehm wasn’t sure if the festival would be sustainable. Photo by Michael Buck
As she discusses Gilda’s LaughFest, Joanne Roehm adopts a serious tone.
“LaughFest can seem like this flashy, big, exciting project, but at the end of the day, it’s creating viability for navigating really tough stuff,” she said. “We will all be impacted by cancer and death and grieving.
“Knowing that I’m playing a small role in helping people navigate those toughest things in life and providing these free resources for our community — that’s what drives me.”
Roehm wears a couple of hats, like all employees at Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids.
She helms the ship of Grand Rapids’ 10-day comedy festival, LaughFest, as director, and she also serves as Gilda’s Club Grand Rapids’ director of strategic initiatives, putting into place the policies and partnerships that keep the cancer- and grief-support nonprofit moving forward.
Roehm’s family moved to Michigan from Huddersfield, England, when she was in eighth grade. She said the move, during sensitive years in her life, trained her to be adaptable.
In like form, the teasing she encountered from her new classmates at Tecumseh High School, 30 miles southwest of Ann Arbor, honed her sense of humor.
“I stood out no matter what because of my accent. It taught me to handle teasing with humor,” she said. “I got teased quite a lot. And then I lost (the accent) pretty quickly once I got here.”
Roehm’s close-knit family, all involved in artistic pursuits, kept things memorable during those years.
“My mother is a costume designer and seamstress, and both my dad and brother are musicians (though not full time), and I went to school for music.
“We’re kind of like the Von Trapps,” she said.
A graduate of Western Michigan University with a bachelor of arts in music and a minor in communications, Roehm said leadership was a natural fit for her from a young age.
She said comedian Tina Fey, author of “Bossypants,” and Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg, founder of LeanIn.org and the Ban Bossy movement, capture the truth of the term “bossy” as applied to women with leadership aptitude.
“Like many young girls, I was always viewed as the bossy one, which we know now, thank you Tina Fey and Sheryl Sandberg, is common among outspoken women,” she said.
“I knew very early on that I liked to be the one leading the group, whether it was directing the kids’ backyard theater performance or being the one giving the directions for the game or activity.”
That drive for leadership continued past college, when Roehm worked for a string of nonprofits, including the YMCA, Opera Grand Rapids and Grandville Avenue Arts and Humanities.
Returning to Western, Roehm earned her master’s degree in public administration.
The opportunity to work at Gilda’s Club followed in short order.
“I knew very little about Gilda’s Club but knew some of the people affiliated with it and their reputation in the community,” she said. “My first job here was fund development, so not anything to do with the arts. But I trusted in the organization’s reputation, and as I went through the interview process, I was really taken with the culture and the mission here.”
Having had the opportunity to work at so many nonprofits in her 20s and now that she’s worked at Gilda’s Club for six years, Roehm said she sees her early leadership style was all passion, little patience.
“I was so anxious to be a change maker that I would come into a situation with guns blazing and want to make an immediate impact,” she said. “But what I’ve learned professionally is the skill to sit back, listen and learn, then identify if change needs to be made and how to execute it.
“It’s more measured and strategic.”
Shortly after she was hired in November 2010, Gilda’s Club went public with its plans for LaughFest, and the nonprofit launched the inaugural event in spring 2011.
Laughing, Roehm said the team was “building the plane as we flew it” the first few months, and she didn’t know if the festival would be sustainable.
Now in its seventh year, with a staff of 10 employees, a team of between 750 and 1,200 volunteers per event and festival attendance of 50,000 per year, Roehm said it seems LaughFest is here to stay.
“I think it’s really found its groove the last couple of years,” she said. “Internally, we know how to do it now, and the first few years we were figuring it out.”
Drawing on her high school years of work experience in food service and retail, as well as her professional career in the arts, nonprofits and administration, Roehm has put her people skills to work at Gilda’s Club and LaughFest.
“My job has a foot in both Gilda’s Club and LaughFest,” she said. “On the LaughFest side, I do everything from budgeting to framework. I book the talent. I steer the ship.
“On the Gilda’s Club side, I work on strategic business, community partnerships, employee culture and professional development.”
Roehm said the job description is purposely broad.
“I help advance the totality of the organization,” she said. “A big part of where my role is right now is taking the big audience we’ve built for LaughFest and leveraging it for Gilda’s Club.”
She noted those financial, volunteer and community engagement partnerships are built for a festival that is 10 days long, but it translates into help for the nonprofit that runs year-round.
“Everything we do at Gilda’s Club is free, so those partnerships are a big part of making our organization run,” she said.
Roehm said Gilda’s Club recently joined Grand Rapids’ WestSide Collaborative, an organization that consists of 25 local nonprofits, such as the Boys and Girls Club, Habitat for Humanity and The Other Way Ministries, and promotes equity, inclusion and hope in the community.
She said it has been a useful way to establish more support, yet also give back to other groups.
“Grand Rapids is this little-big small town where it’s growing and evolving and yet everything is pretty connected still,” she said.
As an incubator for a “seriously funny” festival like LaughFest, Roehm said she thinks Grand Rapids is one-of-a-kind.
“Grand Rapids is uniquely philanthropic and uniquely supportive of large-scale events,” she said. “I often talk about this when people ask about LaughFest (spreading to) other communities.
“I don’t think it could be as successful elsewhere. Maybe it could, but I don’t know. We rally around ArtPrize, LaughFest, etc., and not every community has this support or capacity.”
Roehm said she is proud of the level of success LaughFest has earned in seven years.
“I’m proud of the place that LaughFest now has in this community, that we’ve become one of the key events that people look to Grand Rapids for each year,” she said. “The fact that we’ve been able to generate revenue, which we didn’t know we’d be able to do coming out of the gate, I’m very proud of that.”
Looking ahead, Roehm said one of her biggest goals is making the festival sustainable long term.
“I’m looking forward to getting to the 10-year anniversary in a few years and celebrating and leveraging that,” she said. “I want to continue to build on the regional and national visibility, and there is more work to be done on those levels.”
Roehm said the festival’s main emphasis is, and has been from the beginning, “if we can get people to laugh, we can get them to listen.”
“We’re creating a platform to talk about emotional health,” she said. “Coming out of a Michigan winter, we all need to laugh.
“We provide winter’s first excuse to get out of the house, to go downtown and be with others to laugh.”
And through that, “we continue to strive to create a broader community dialogue about the importance of emotional health.”