Foundation’s third wave in charge of legacy
Mary Frey Bennett stresses continued commitment to West and Northern Michigan communities.
Every year, the Frey Foundation can be counted on to donate approximately $6 million to programs and projects in West and Northern Michigan communities, including to some of the region’s most transformational projects, such as Van Andel Arena and Grand Rapids Downtown Market.
That won’t change, according to members of the Frey Foundation, who discussed the appointment of Mary Frey Bennett as the foundation’s new board chair.
It was announced Nov. 11 that Frey Bennett, who has been serving as vice chair since 2014, will step into the position of chair beginning Jan. 1. David Frey, her uncle and long-time Frey Foundation board chair, will step down. He will retain a position as trustee on the nine-member board.
This marks the first time a member of the Frey family’s third generation has held the position of board chair.
It also was announced third-generation trustee Ellie Frey Zagel will serve as vice chair, Edward J. “Ted” Frey Jr. will serve as treasurer and third-generation trustee Sarah Frey Rose will serve as secretary.
David Frey said the transition has been in the works for a while now and will take place seamlessly.
“This is not an abrupt change of command,” he said. “We are trying to have a very smooth, seamless generational shift.”
He said it has become something of a tradition for family members to step down around the age of 75. His brother, John Frey, retired as vice chair of the board at the age of 75 in 2014.
Frey said when the second generation began their roles as Frey Foundation trustees, they rotated the leadership positions more frequently, which he and Frey Bennett both expect will be the case with the third generation, as well.
Edward and Frances Frey began the Frey Foundation in 1974, and for approximately 15 years, the pair directed its giving.
Frey described the organization at the time as a “pass through” foundation, with the goal of helping advance the community.
In 1988, when Edward Frey passed away, the bulk of his estate endowed the foundation permanently.
At that time, the second generation stepped in to lead the organization.
“My older sister, two brothers and I were charged with the responsibility of formulating grant-making policies, establishing an office, hiring a small staff — sort of getting into the foundation business,” Frey said.
He said initially, when his parents incorporated the foundation, they hadn’t created specific guidelines regarding where or which types of organizations would be considered for its philanthropic giving.
“Basically, we had a blank piece of paper to decide the geographic footprint and focus areas to serve,” Frey said. “Over the years, we decided those focus areas and decided West and Northern Michigan should be the geographic footprint.”
The Frey Foundation is committed to giving in the areas of community building, children and families, community arts and the environment. It has provided grants in many West and Northern Michigan communities, including Muskegon, Holland, Grand Rapids, Traverse City, Charlevoix, Petoskey, Cadillac, Harbor Springs and more.
Each year, the foundation provides approximately $6 million in grants.
Over its lifetime, it has provided more than $131 million to support programs and projects in the West and Northern Michigan communities.
Bennett Frey said the third generation is committed to providing grants in those same communities.
“I would really like to reiterate our commitment to the communities of West and Northern Michigan,” she said. “We are a place-based funder, and we see that as a strength.”
One of the biggest fears for some nonprofits that receive grants from family foundations is as new generations take the place of previous generations, community ties will dwindle, and eventually, grant dollars from those family foundations will dry up.
Frey Bennett, who lives in Gainesville, Florida, promises that won’t happen with the Frey Foundation.
She said, for one, several family members still retain homes in West or Northern Michigan, and the trustees and their families are very connected to the communities the foundation makes donations to.
She said her own family makes regular visits to Michigan, and she already is instilling the importance of the West and Northern Michigan region in her children — part of the family’s fourth generation.
“Every time we go to Michigan, which is usually in the summer, we go to the Frederik Meijer Gardens, the Grand Rapids Public Museum, the fish hatcheries and historic museums up north, and I point out the Frey Foundation’s role,” she said.
Frey Bennett also has a long history of involvement with the Frey Foundation, taking on her first role as an intern when she still was in college.
Bennett was born in Grand Rapids, graduated from Interlochen Arts Academy and Kalamazoo College and earned a master’s degree in nonprofit management. She has worked in the field of philanthropy for two decades.
“The foundation was just getting up and running when I was in college, and I became an intern for a term,” she said.
She became a trustee in 2012.
“It has been so wonderful to see the impact we’ve had on our community and on the lives of many individuals and families,” she said. “That has been the thing I’ve been most proud of.
“I’m hoping to build on the success of my parents’ generation. My dad and his siblings have done a tremendous job with their work for the Frey Foundation.”
The Frey family’s second generation has been involved with some of Grand Rapids’ most impactful projects.
Frey also is a co-chair of Grand Action, the organization behind the Van Andel Arena, DeVos Place, Meijer Majestic Theater, Michigan State University Medical School and the Grand Rapids Downtown Market — projects the Frey Foundation made significant contributions toward.
“We’ve done a variety of things in this region and throughout West Michigan that have had an impact on culture, arts, health care, urban energy and building great cities,” he said.
He noted the foundation’s credo is “making great grants.”
“That is our legacy, making game-changing grants,” he said.
He said the Frey Foundation decided early to focus on partnering with other foundations in its grant making.
“If a grant seeker comes to us and makes a proposal, we are not likely to be the only source of funds for that grant seeker,” he said. “We prefer to partner with other foundations and other funders. We think it makes for a better due diligence process and provides the grant seeker with a higher probability of success.”
Frey and Frey Bennett said that partnership model will continue, with Grand Action as well as other partners.
“We are huge fans of the city and the cities we support, and we try to stay engaged in the activities of the cities as best as we can, not only because we are passionate about what we do, but also because it’s great for the future,” Frey said.
“What we are doing is building great cities that will attract young people who want to live in these cities, particularly Grand Rapids, which has tremendous momentum. There are a lot of eyeballs watching what is going on here.
“We have a great and growing reputation and magnetism for millennials, and we want to do the things that will continue to attract those young people, bright, capable, high-energy people, who want to be part of that type of city.”
He said he fully expects that to serve as the third generation’s driving force, as well.
As he steps down from his seat as chair, Frey said the foundation has become very successful. He attributes a lot of that success with its investment strategy.
He explained private family foundations are required each year to give away at least 5 percent of the average of their assets for the previous year. If a foundation does not meet that threshold, it faces a stiff penalty from the IRS.
“That helps you manage your investment activities,” he said. “We have a 5 percent threshold. We try to produce, on average, an investment result of 5 percent, plus inflation, plus 2 percent for growth, because if you aren’t growing, you are shrinking.
“If you don’t have a well-honed investment policy and a rigorous investment strategy and oversight, it will diminish your grant-making ability.”
He said the foundation has enlisted nonfamily members to help with its investment strategy.
“We have some very talented nonfamily members on the committee, and it’s been very helpful to all of us,” he said.
Third-generation trustees have the advantage of already having been acclimated to the processes and policies of the Frey Foundation.
“The next generation has had a chance to watch this governance process go on for a number of years,” he said.