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Sunday, 09 November 2014 22:00

Q&A: Steven Wilson, President of Frey Foundation

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Steve Wilson Steve Wilson COURTESY PHOTO

This year, the Frey Foundation celebrates its 40th anniversary, as well as more than $125 million invested throughout Michigan. Over those four decades, the foundation has provided grants to West Michigan and Northern Michigan nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity of Kent County, Grand Rapids Children’s Museum, Grand Rapids Whitewater Inc. and many others. The organization’s grant-giving is broken up into four focus groups: Nurturing Community Arts, Enhancing the Lives of Children and Their Families, Building Communities and Protecting the Environment. MiBiz talked to Frey Foundation President Steven Wilson about collaboration, best practices and how the foundation balances the grant requests it receives against the grants it can give.

What do you look for in an organization when fielding grant requests?

We look at a number of different aspects of the request, but probably the biggest one is collaboration. We like to support partnerships that are broadly supported in the community. … Over the years, the foundation has seen that those projects, programs and nonprofit organizations that are broadly supported from the start have the best chance for long-term success.

You have four separate focus groups, but with many organizations, those areas tend to overlap. Do you seek out this kind of overlap?

We certainly do and that’s always kind of a great find to see those opportunities where our multiple program areas intersect. Sometimes we draw Venn diagrams to see what potentially is the connection between families and art or the environment and children.

What is an example of an organization you work with that has this kind of crossover?

An example is ArtPrize. It has a tremendous impact on the community, from an economic development perspective, from a community pride perspective and even just influencing downtown’s growth.

Are there times when one of the focus areas has a bigger granting need than another?

Some funders might say, ‘There’s 25 percent to each area and when we’ve reached that dollar number, we won’t make any more grants that year.’ That’s not the approach we’ve followed. But when we track it over the long term, it seems for the most part to even out. I would say that over the past 20-plus years, there has been a lot of capital projects as Grand Rapids grew up as a city. … Looking forward, there may be projects that are less about brick and mortar and more about the softer tissue of the community, such as restoring the rapids or ArtPrize and other major programs like that which utilize the facilities that we built over the last two or three decades.

In addition to the four focus areas, how do you make sure you have diversity and inclusion in your granting?

We’re very supportive of diversity and inclusion in our grantmaking and it comes out in a number of ways. … Our online application asks diversity information about the board and the organization, and secondly for those grants that go forward to the board, we do site visits and that includes talking to the staff and boards. We also do our best to work with a broad network of nonprofits throughout the region and getting to populations that might not be represented.

What are some best practices you have developed or implemented over the past year?

Over the past couple of years, we’ve been investing in technology and establishing a new technology platform for the foundation for both our internal work and managing grants, as well as externally. So we’ve just debuted a new two-stage grant inquiry and application process. It is all online with a series of instructions that are easy to follow. If you have questions, you can just call our office. The two-stage process allows you to inquire, put your thoughts in a simple application form and you’ll get an answer right away from us.

It sounds like the new process has made it easier for the user. How is the staff benefiting?

Our goal is to reach out more broadly throughout the West Michigan region. We want to get the best and brightest ideas. So by handling things more smoothly, that means we can handle a large volume of requests, as well as look more deeply at the requests.

How many requests did you get in 2014 and how many were you able to grant?

I would say right now we have 100 active grants. But we may get four times that many in requests.

You mentioned collaboration is a big factor in granting, but what else do you look at when going through requests?

We have an internal process where we look at a variety of attributes. The Frey family wealth was earned in banking, so we tend to look at the organization’s budget, its audits, its finances. We give that a lot of scrutiny, all in the spirit of wanting to support programs that are economically sustainable.

The members of the Frey family are known for having passions in different philanthropic areas. How do you give attention to each one of the family members’ passions and come to an agreement on which cause to grant?

Each family member does their own grantmaking. … [But] one of the things we’ve done is we’ve just been through a year of strategic planning. We work with the National Center for Family Philanthropy, which works with family foundations all across the country. Each one of our trustees is self-selected to be on a work group in each one of our four program areas. So they gain a deeper knowledge, read research and really did their homework on the program area that was of particular interest to them. As that goes forward, they’re becoming our experts on building the community or the environment. … But ultimately, it’s a consensus decision among the board. We do an in-depth staff analysis and then that analysis is discussed at a board meeting. And while we’re kind of a classic family foundation, it’s all family members sitting around the board table. They’re all very business-like. … Nevertheless, it is family, too.

Interview conducted and condensed by Lindsay Patton-Carson.

 

Read 3395 times Last modified on Sunday, 09 November 2014 22:18

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