"You get in the water and it is an instant shock. You come out and your arms and feet don't work," said Eric Jorgensen, president and CEO of JX Enterprises in Hartland, Wis.
Truck Dealer of the Year Finalist Erick Jorgensen and his three daughters take the plunge to benefit Special Olympics.
Truck Dealer of the Year Finalist Erick Jorgensen and his three daughters take the plunge to benefit Special Olympics.

Jorgensen is describing the Polar Plunge, an annual event sponsored by the Wisconsin Motor Carriers Association to benefit Special Olympics Wisconsin. Participants raise money with the promise of taking a dip in frigid Lake Michigan in January. A popular event, the 2011 Polar Plunge for Special Olympics Wisconsin was held in 12 cities, had more than 9,000 participants and raised nearly $1.9 million.

January marked Jorgensen's third year taking the plunge. WMCA got involved about five years ago. Jorgensen admitted that with a busy schedule running his company, not to mention the prospect of nearly freezing to death, he almost didn't want to do the event. But having made a show of it in the past, he didn't really have a choice.

"I don't know how I can get out of it!" Jorgensen said with a laugh.

Since the first Polar Plunge, he's gained quite some popularity. Donors, he said, will preemptively contact him, money in hand, asking about the plunge, although out of generosity or sadism remains to be seen.

Donor psyche notwithstanding, Jorgensen has become a minor powerhouse for collecting money. This year, he didn't begin soliciting donations until only four days before the event. He raised over $9,000.

"The first year… I started fund raising like two weeks beforehand, thinking it would be five to seven hundred dollars. It was $5,000," Jorgensen said. "People seem to be giving a bit more now that the recession is ending."

A Fund Raising How-To

Jorgensen seems to be natively adept at raising charity funds. I can attest to his magnetic phone personality, which almost made me want to run for an ice-cold body of water.


Instead of simply asking for money and explaining the good will of his cause, Jorgensen brings donors into the fold of charity, turning them into distant participants. He makes sure the generous donors are involved beyond the potentially cold moment of simply handing over the cash.

"Afterward, I send pictures [via email] with stories about the day," Jorgensen said. It seems simple because it is, but the effect is demonstrably big.

Looking at the pictures myself, and listening to him talk, I get a taste of the sensation of actually being there. This year, all three of his daughters decided to jump in with him. The energy, he said, melted away fear of the water.

"You get out there, and you get the thrill of the moment… all of these people around you cheering. It was just exhilarating," he said. "The parents [of Special Olympians] come up and say thank you, and the athletes embrace you with gratitude."

"It's pretty cool," he said, stumbling over a pun.

The Spirit of Giving

Jorgensen and his company donate to a number other charities, including Casual for a Cause, the Red Cross, various women's shelters and most recently to tornado victims. But his personal favorite is food drives. After a business event in Arizona a few years ago, Jorgensen met Gerda Klein, a Holocaust survivor and founder of The Gerda and Kurt Klein Foundation, which campaigns against hunger.

"She really hit it home the amount of people that are hungry in the United States," he said. "And that it is not commonly known."

Every year Jorgensen gives company donations to local food pantries, and in classic Jorgensen fashion, he makes sure his employees are personally involved.

"I have my managers hand-deliver the checks… they had no idea how many people [the pantry] served," said Jorgensen. "They brought those stories back with them."

That, he believes, is the way to foster lasting charity. And speaking of lasting, Jorgensen of course plans to attend next year's Plunge… and this time, to bring his wife along for the swim.

Jorsensen was was the finalist for the ATD/HDT Truck Dealer of the Year honor; read more about him and the other nominees here.