Frey Foundation

The Frey Foundation, established in 1974 by Frances and Edward J. Frey, works to better the lives of organizations, individuals, and families in southwestern Michigan. The founders were civic leaders in Grand Rapids, MI who made their wealth through the Union Bank and Trust Company and the Foremost Insurance Company (specializing in insuring mobile homes and recreational vehicles). They helped establish a Grand Rapids chapter of Junior Achievement and Grand Valley State College (now called Grand Valley State University).


The Frey Foundation, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is one of the state’s largest family foundations (that is, a private foundation established by a family). The foundation is committed to working together with communities to make a difference in the lives of organizations, individuals, and families. Grants are provided primarily to nonprofit organizations in southwestern Michigan for projects to 1) enhance the lives of children and families, 2) protect natural resources, 3) promote the arts and 4) expand philanthropic and civic action (Rohwer 2001).

Historic Roots

Edward J. Frey was heir to Union Bank and Trust Company (an institution founded by his father in 1918) and later served as its chief executive officer. Frey recognized the significance of the postwar boom in mobile home sales and founded the Foremost Insurance Company. The company specialized in insuring mobile homes and recreational vehicles. Both of Frey’s endeavors helped him accumulate considerable wealth.

Frey and his wife, Frances, were civic leaders for decades in the Grand Rapids area. Their personal interests included the arts, education, economic development, and efforts to improve the lives of families (especially, women and children). Many of their endeavors led them to help establish a Grand Rapids chapter of Junior Achievement and the Grand Valley State College (now called Grand Valley State University; Fugate 1997, 23). In 1974, Frances and Edward Frey established the Frey Foundation. Upon their deaths in 1988 and 1989 respectively, the foundation was fully funded. The next generation of the Frey family continued the work of their parents and shaped the family foundation into the one that operates today.


Family foundations, such as the Frey Foundation, account for a major portion of foundation giving in the United States. Families manage approximately two-fifths of the estimated 46,800 private and community foundations which give more than one-third of the $19.5 billion in foundation grants awarded in the United States (Family Foundation Services 2003).

In Michigan, foundations hold billions in assets and make annual contributions of over $1 billion. A small portion of the 1,790 active foundations manages most of these funds. As the Frey Foundation is one of the largest in the state of Michigan, it is one of the 402 foundations that account for large amounts of the state’s philanthropic giving (reported in May 1999; Rohwer 2001). The Frey Foundation gives, in part, to the state’s nonprofit sector that includes over 38,000 organizations, exceeding $60 billion in total assets. This giving helped the nonprofit sector grow faster than the overall economy of the state. Much data shows that, in the past ten years, organizations that give in a charitable manner grew more than 150 percent and foundation spending was up almost 140 percent; over this same time period, Michigan’s personal income went up only sixty-six percent (Klein 1999). It is hard to pinpoint exactly the personal impact that the Frey Foundation had on this growth but data from annual reports shows the foundation’s assets grew from $120 million to over $170 million, and grant payments increased from just under $5 million to over $6.5 million between the years 1996 and 2002 (providing over 263 grants). Grants awarded ranged from $50 to $1 million (Jacob 2002, 603).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

Foundations are such an important part of the giving sector, especially in the community of which they are a part. The Frey Foundation continues to enhance its community. The foundation’s areas of grant making lie primarily in greater Grand Rapids, Kent County, and Charlevoix and Emmet counties in Michigan. However, it also gives generously to those programs that potentially have statewide impact.

The Frey Foundation has five focus areas under which its grant interests fall: Civic Progress; Enhancing the Lives of Children and Families; Nurturing Community Arts; Protecting the Environment; and, Strengthening Philanthropy. Examples of recent grants awarded by the foundation in these areas follow.

  • Grants received under the Civic Progress area include Gilda’s Club for the 2001-2002 “Cancer Won’t Wait” campaign and Second Harvest Food Bank of West Michigan for their “Moving to End Hunger” campaign.
  • Under the area of Enhancing the Lives of Children and Families came a number of initiatives, both affecting school-time and after-school programs. The foundation’s grants included: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Western Michigan which increased the school-based mentorship program from seventy-five to 200 matches per year; and Kent Intermediate School District for the expansion of the Bright Beginnings Early Childhood Program providing resources for at-risk families with children ages zero to five.
  • The area of Nurturing Community Arts found help from the foundation in numerous grants: to the Grand Rapids Symphony in support of the Music for Life Endowment Campaign – specifically supporting education & outreach; and to Fredrik Meijer Gardens for design and construction of a new five-acre children’s garden – AdventureScapes.
  • Under the area of Protecting the Environment, the foundation gave to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp for the purchase of an additional 340 acres of land surrounding the camp.
  • Finally, in the area of Strengthening Philanthropy, the foundation continued support in either grants or memberships to over twenty-three organizations that effected philanthropy on a larger and national scale.

Overall, in the years 2001-2002, the Frey Foundation reviewed and distributed small grants that ranged in value from $950 to $100,000 to over 154 organizations. The total amount of grant making was more than $9.5 million (Rohwer 2001).

Key Related Ideas

  • Encouraging civic progress: Public programs and policy development or advocacy efforts on major civic issues, which enhance the relative position of older urban centers and towns within their regions.
  • Enhancing the lives of children and families: Promoting better early childhood education, childcare and parent education. A focus on effective advocacy efforts for children and on professional development systems.
  • Family foundations: A type of private foundation. Most frequently, family foundations are small in size, possess small staffs, and strongly reflect the personal values and group dynamics of the donor's family and heirs.
  • Nurturing community arts: Stimulating the vitality, effectiveness and growth of community-based arts and cultural experiences. Encouraging the expansion of the arts to new or largely untapped audiences in ways that are sustainable by the community being served.
  • Protecting the environment: This idea involves many approaches. Among them are 1) more sensible use of land through preservation of farmland, forests, rainforests, wetlands, seashore, and other natural habitats; 2) care of the atmosphere and ozone layer through regulation of fuel emissions and consumer waste; 3) care of water resources; 4) more efficient and sustainable urban development.
  • Strengthening Philanthropy: Improving the effectiveness of organized philanthropy and stimulating its growth.

Important People Related to the Topic

  • David G. Frey: Foundation trustee and son of the foundation’s founders. David resides in East Grand Rapids, Michigan, where his wife Judy Frey is the mayor. He recently retired from his position of president of Bank-One Western Michigan but continues to consult for them. In retirement, he maintains his own personal philanthropic endeavors.
  • Edward J. Frey and Francis Frey: Founders of the Frey Foundation in 1974.
  • Edward J. Frey Jr.: A son of the founders and secretary-treasurer of the foundation. Edward lives in Harbor Springs, Michigan, and is owner of the Traverse Bay Country Club.
  • John M. Frey: A son of the founders and chairman of the foundation. John lives in Charlevoix, Michigan, and has worked as an actor while maintaining his life as a gentleman farmer.
  • Mary Caroline “TwinK” Frey: Daughter of founders and vice-chairwoman of the foundation lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She has also endowed a separate foundation called the Nokomis Foundation, which focuses on funding projects that benefit women and girls.
  • Milton W. Rohwer: President of the Frey Foundation since 1998. Before coming to the Frey Foundation, Rohwer was the president of the Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce and executive director for the Right Place Program in Grand Rapids. He is a board member for many organizations, which include: West Michigan Strategic Alliance, Michigan’s Children, and Michigan’s Economic and Environmental Roundtable.

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • Council on Foundations: For over fifty years, the Council on Foundations has helped foundation staff, trustees and board members in their day-to-day grant making activities. Through one-to-one technical assistance, research, publications, conferences and workshops, legal services, and a wide array of other services, the council addresses the important issues and challenges that face foundations and corporate funders. The council’s Web site is available at
  • Fredrik Meijer Gardens: The Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park, a 125-acre scenic, year-round botanical garden and sculpture park in Grand Rapids, Michigan. They are also now the home of Leonardo da Vinci's spectacular bronze horse. More information available at
  • INDEPENDENT SECTOR: Founded in 1980, IS is "a coalition of leading nonprofits, foundations and corporations strengthening not-for-profit initiative, philanthropy and citizen action" (INDEPENDENT SECTOR 2003).
  • Junior Achievement: Junior Achievement is people who believe in “inspiring kids to learn the economics of life through free enterprise education. JA enables caring business professionals to share their experience with students to show them what it takes to be successful” (Junior Achievement 2003). The organization provides experiences that complement school-based economics concepts. Visit JA at

  • The National Center for Family Philanthropy: Founded in 1997, the Center works to help individuals and families create and live by their own philanthropic missions. For information on resources, publications, and programs of the center visit its Web site at

Related Web Sites

  • The Frey Foundation: The Frey Foundation is a family foundation committed to working together to make a difference in the lives of individuals, families, organizations and communities. Its Web site, at, provides information on the foundation history, programs, guidelines, grant areas, and grant application.
  • Council of Michigan Foundations: The Council of Michigan Foundations (CMF), incorporated in 1975, is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit membership association comprised of more than 400 foundations and corporations making grants for charitable purposes. Its mission “to enhance, improve, and increase philanthropy in Michigan” is accomplished through assisting grant makers in their work (Council of Michigan 2003). The CMF Web site, at, provides information about philanthropy in Michigan, youth grantmaking, CMF publications and programs, and information about and for different types of foundations.
  • The Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University: The center strives to improve the nonprofit sector. Its work “increases the understanding of philanthropy and improves its practice through programs in research, teaching, public service, and public affairs” (The Center on Philanthropy 2003). The center’s Web site, at, provides information on center research and academic programs, conferences, publications, and more.


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INDEPENDENT SECTOR. Homepage. [cited 7 May 2003]. Available from

Jacob G., David, ed. The Foundation Directory 2002, 24th ed. New York City: The Foundation Center, 2002.

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Pactor, Andrea. Foundations. Learning to Give. [cited 28 January 2003]. Available from

Rohwer, Milt. Frey Foundation Annual Report. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Frey Foundation, 2001.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at Grand Valley State University. It is offered by Learning To Give and Grand Valley State University.