August 12, 2021 • By Xanat Hernandez
Jack Toan Biology ’94, FEMBA ’02, is chief operations officer at the Illumination Foundation, a non-profit organization that “provides targeted, interdisciplinary services for the most vulnerable homeless adults and children.” Toan recently transitioned to this new role after serving as vice president and community relations manager at Wells Fargo, where he oversaw the organization’s charitable giving and volunteerism programs.
Toan’s perspective on philanthropy is shaped by personal experience. Toan and his family were refugees that arrived in South Carolina when he was just nine years old. His family’s arrival was sponsored by a local church that also provided clothing, food and shelter and helped the family acclimate to the United States through English, driving and art lessons.
“Growing up we had so many people come around to help us and witnessing strangers come together to uplift a family that needed help was a transformative experience,” said Toan.
Originally, Toan studied biology at UCI with plans to eventually become a doctor. However, he soon found an interest in marketing, and enrolled in the Fully-Employed MBA program at the Merage School.
After completing his MBA, Toan landed his job at Wells Fargo, where he eventually led the organization’s Community Reinvest Act (CRA) and philanthropic efforts. In this role he oversaw a $10 million budget for Orange County, the Inland Empire and San Diego. He was able to utilize his marketing skills to showcase Wells Fargo’s corporate social responsibility. Wells Fargo employees organized fundraising walks, beach clean-ups and offered financial education to the community.
Through Wells Fargo, Toan and his team were able to support Operation Gratitude, an organization supporting first-responders and members of the armed forces through “volunteer service projects, acts of gratitude, and meaningful engagements in communities nationwide.” Toan and his team assembled care packages and wrote letters during the military drawdown from the Middle East, supporting the morale of troops abroad.
Solving Homelessness in Orange County
Toan first became involved with the Illumination Foundation after attending a fundraising event in 2006. There he discovered that the nonprofit started as a class project by Merage School students and that Professor Imran Currim, a standout professor of Toan’s, served as an advisor.
“I was attracted to the innovative spirit of the organization,” he explained. “I appreciated that leadership came from a corporate background and weren’t afraid to try new things.”
His passion for helping people experiencing homelessness, especially families and children, led him to become chairman of the board of directors in 2013. In February 2021, after feeling inspired by the Foundation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Toan felt compelled to take a leap and work at the non-profit full-time. During the peak of the pandemic, the Illumination Foundation housed anyone that tested positive to the virus or was otherwise exposed and needed to quarantine—nearly 2,500 people.
“I really felt a calling to become more engaged in the community and I knew I wanted to bring my skillset to the Illumination Foundation during this time of growth,” he said.
In his new operations role, he touches on everything from finance, strategy, marketing and organizational behavior.
“Every aspect of what I learned at the Merage School has come into play in my career,” said Toan.
Breaking the Cycle
Toan is optimistic about Orange County’s ability to break the cycle of homelessness. He believes in a multifaceted approach able to “serve every person and their unique situation.”
He says: “Homelessness in Orange County is not caused by one singular factor,” he said. “There are mental health issues, there is addiction, yes, but there are also families living out of their cars and there are the working poor who work and yet cannot afford housing. You can’t put a label on it.”
In other words, Toan believes in moving away from a one size fits all approach. He also would like to see a sense of heightened urgency in the community, stating “we can solve this problem if we respond to it the way we did to the pandemic—as a state of emergency.”
Another important aspect to the fight against homelessness is the intervention in the cycle of homelessness itself by working with kids.
“The streets are no place for kids,” said Toan. “If we want to end homelessness, we have to work with the kids in families that are experiencing homelessness because you tend to see them cycle through the same trauma and the same issues later down the road.”
Ultimately, Toan believes it is up to everyone in the community to use their skill-sets to help solve big societal problems.
“If you want to enact social change, we all have to come together and we all have a role to play.”