Sixties' Child, Today's Leader

May 19, 2008
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GRAND RAPIDS — Diana Sieger thinks she was born to do this.

Not that she knew, while growing up shy in the Detroit suburb of Grosse Pointe, that she would end up in a high-profile job running a community foundation on the western side of the state. But like many children of the 1960s, Sieger wanted a career that would make an impact on society.

She found one as president of Grand Rapids Community Foundation.

“Ever since I was a kid in the ’60s, I was so taken by the upheaval and social change at that time period,” Sieger said. “From the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War to women’s rights, I was so influenced by all that was happening. I knew that whatever I landed on, in terms of the work world, I really wanted to make an impact.”

As the foundation’s leader since 1987 and overseer of its $227.57 million in assets as of June 30, 2007, as reported in an IRS document, Sieger has been both lauded and criticized. Her involvement in professional organizations has taken her from Grand Haven to Europe. The foundation’s assets have grown seven-fold during her nearly 21-year tenure. Working closely with a staff of 20 and a 12-member board of directors, Sieger said she has made some decisions that were easy and some that were tough, and has always kept her eye on the long-term survival of a treasured community institution.

Name: Diana R. Sieger
Company: Grand Rapids Community Foundation
Title: President
Age: 56
Birthplace: Detroit
Residence: Grand Rapids
Community Organizations: Board president, Council of Michigan Foundations; board member, Michigan Community Foundation Venture Products Fund; Kent County Family & Children’s Coordinator Council; member, Michigan Child Welfare Improvement Task Force; board member, foundations of Western Michigan University and Grand Valley State University.
Biggest Career Break: “Taking the plunge by applying for this job.”

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation’s roots stretch back to 1922, when it was established by business owner Lee Hutchins with an initial $25 gift from the commerce association president. It picked up steam in 1929, just as the Great Depression started, with a $100,000 gift from the estate of tannery owners George and Mary Metz.

The foundation works in concert with other organizations involved in community leadership roles, Sieger said, in the signature style that makes Grand Rapids notable in philanthropy.

“I think that we are at the very core of being a real spark for change — a catalyst, if you will,” Sieger said. “What I’ve learned very strongly is that no one person and no one organization can do the kinds of things that are being done in this community alone. When I say it’s at the very core, I mean in concert with many others.”

As the new millennium was about to dawn, the foundation joined with several other community organizations to make the welfare of children a central issue, she said. In 1992, over a chicken dinner at Aquinas College, the Grand Rapids Community Foundation asked 200 attendees to identify Grand Rapids’ most important priority.

“Almost to a table, there was a call out for really trying to address helping children at risk from abuse and neglect to poverty and racism,” Sieger said. “The rate, at that time, of child abuse was pretty alarming for a community that values families, so the board went along with me. I said our gift back to the community is to figure out how we’re going to address this.”

At the staff’s urging, the foundation’s board agreed to provide funding for local nonprofit agencies to create programs that would identify families at greatest risk for abuse and provide free services, although there were no guarantees the approach would work. Today, the foundation continues to fund those efforts, Sieger said.

“A lot of things that we’ve done aren’t necessarily going to be seen by the naked eye,” she said. “That was not necessarily a Chamber of Commerce issue. Being at the top of the heap in terms of child abuse and neglect is not a very positive thing.

“The key thing about what our role is in the community, we really are a strong catalyst and we are not afraid of getting into the middle of an issue at all.”

In April, the foundation announced grant awards of $813,650 for projects from diversity training for every ninth-grader in Kent County to foreclosure prevention efforts to construction projects to helping ex-offenders find jobs. It authorized a total of $8.3 million in grants last year.

For 10 years, Sieger has been meeting monthly with leaders of other area foundations. “I started having a monthly meeting of the staffed foundations so that we could basically learned how each of us works, because we’re all very different,” she said, noting that philanthropy in general, led by the DeVos and Van Andel family foundations, has become more organized over the past five to six years.

“The way that people view philanthropy sometimes is that it’s just charity work. I take so seriously what I do, as does everybody in this organization. We’re $250 million in assets. This isn’t a small operation. This is a tremendous amount of responsibility. In order to continue to do the work that we do and take risks, and possibly suffer the consequences of a grant not working — because we’ve got to try — you’ve got to have people on board who know accounting, a staff that knows how to review a grant proposal, or a cadre of people who know how to sit down with a couple or a family or an individual and say ‘Have you thought about your estate plan and to whom you’d like to leave your assets?’”

Sieger, who is board president for the Michigan Council of Foundations, lauds programs such as the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University. But she heeds well some advice once given by a GRCF board member: “Don’t professionalize it so much that you take the heart right out of it.”

A member of the last graduating class of Grosse Pointe High School, before it was split into two schools, Sieger grew up with one sister and their parents blocks from Lake St. Clair. Her father, Bob Sieger, once caused a commotion when he was paged at the airport and a gaggle of teenage girls expected a certain rock star from Ann Arbor instead of a middle-aged sports editor from The Detroit News.

She studied sociology and education as a Western Michigan University undergraduate, then married a man from Grand Rapids and moved here in 1973, armed with a teaching certificate.

“In that time there was a tremendous teacher glut,” she said. “I got to know Grand Rapids by Scotch-taping a map of Grand Rapids on the dashboard of my falling-apart Plymouth Belvedere. I visited every school district and was just having dead-ends.”

Sieger ended up with a job as a caseworker at the American Red Cross. “I loved it,” she said. “It was a wonderful experience for a very young woman to go through. I was counseling Vietnam-era veterans and service personnel and helping families affected by fire or floods. It was a good base for me wanting to go back and get my graduate degree.”

She returned to WMU for a master’s in social work with an emphasis in policy, planning and administration. She and her husband divorced after eight years, but Sieger, who had joined the United Way the day after graduate school ended, decided to stay in Grand Rapids.

“I have been in Grand Rapids since 1973, so as I say to the folks at the Rotary and other places, can I finally burn my green card?” she joked.

For nine years at United Way, Sieger worked in strategic planning, allocations and agency relations. When the job at the foundation became available in 1987, she decided to apply. “It was a tough interview,” she said. “I was selected and started in September of 1987, and I have never looked back once.”

For most of its history, the foundation was known as the Grand Rapids Foundation. The word “community” was added in 2000 to better reflect the foundation’s goals, its affiliate in Ionia County, and to connect in the marketplace with other community foundations in Michigan, she said.

The foundation had long survived in the trust form, as the beneficiary of bank-controlled trusts, Sieger said. In order to attract more funding, in 1989 the foundation became a nonprofit corporation.

“That really helped define us in the minds of the estate planners, lawyers and accountants,” she said. “We were an entity that they then understood in terms of legal documentation and all that. If we are here to do the community some good 50 years from now, we’ve got to be mindful about how we’re going to invest our money.”

One of those investments is the purchase of the 1904 building in downtown Grand Rapids that once served as an icehouse for Anheuser-Busch. Sparked by a $1 million donation from retired jewelers Tom and Mickie Fox, the foundation is raising $4.5 million for the purchase and renovation. It is paying developers Sam Cummings and Eric Wynsma $2.26 million for the building, which Sieger said has been gutted in preparation for the build-out of 17,000 square feet. A Sept. 30 move-in date is anticipated.

The foundation is leaving the Waters Building, its home for 36 years, because it needs more space and “needs a home,” Sieger said.

“There are many days where the (meeting) rooms are being used constantly because of how active our staff is,” she said. “We just need space to be able to bring the community in more. Whatever we were going to find, I wanted it to be downtown.”

Sieger said the foundation had looked at 60 properties. “I was sitting in the patio of the Grand Woods (Lounge). We had been looking for a building and I was getting discouraged. As I sat there, I looked across the street and I said, ‘There’s our building.’”

“I am so fortunate. There aren’t that many people who can say they are doing exactly what they wanted to do,” Sieger said.

“This has been such a phenomenal time to be here as this whole community has just grown and exploded in all of its vibrancy and hope and promise.”

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