Holly Johnson said she has always believed in running nonprofits as businesses with budgets, timelines, accountability and competitive salaries. Courtesy Frey Foundation
After her first career and raising a couple kids, Holly Johnson was bitten by the philanthropy bug and found her true professional passion.
Johnson, now president of the Frey Foundation, began her professional philanthropy career 12 years ago.
As a stay-at-home mother, she had been volunteering at the Tri-Cities Family YMCA in Grand Haven, leading new fundraising initiatives and planning events she said brought in new donors.
That’s when she started thinking maybe that was the career for her, and she took a role as the co-director of development for the Greater Ottawa County United Way.
“I think that engaging people around causes they care about and giving people the opportunity to impact something in their community started to really resonate with me,” Johnson said.
Since then, Johnson said she has dedicated her career to helping philanthropists — those who have money to give but don’t know where to start — support the causes they care about.
“They might certainly know how to write a check to an organization, but there's so much more we can do when we really know how to invest in the organizations that we want to see thrive,” Johnson said.
She said she never planned to work in philanthropy, though she comes from a philanthropic family and learned early the importance of giving back to the community that has helped shape her.
“None of us are successful on our own. We have to admit that a whole lot of people along the way played into any one of our successes: teachers, mentors, neighbors, parents, community members,” she said.
Johnson grew up in Grand Haven and earned a B.A. in English in 1990 from Hillsdale College, where she also met her husband, Erick Johnson, though he grew up near her in Spring Lake.
They married in 1992, with Johnson abandoning her vow never to marry a local and to achieve great accomplishments in faraway lands, she said, laughing.
The two then moved to Florida, and she became a sales rep in the temporary employment industry and made executive placements in the Daytona area.
The two later moved back to Michigan so he could assume a role at his multigenerational family business, JSJ Corporation.
She spent some time at the staffing agency Manpower but chose to stay home once they had children starting in 1996.
That’s when she first discovered her love for philanthropy.
“Those were the years when I was really looking for how can I be a stay-at-home mom and raise these kids but also keep a pulse on what’s going on in the community and where can I be helpful,” Johnson said.
During that time volunteering and serving on a couple of nonprofit boards, she decided to pursue a Master of Public Administration degree with a nonprofit focus from Grand Valley State University.
It took five years of commuting to Grand Rapids a couple nights a week while her husband stayed home with the kids, but she finally earned the degree and made many connections.
“It started kind of being the night that I would really look forward to; it's an opportunity to kind of have it all be about me and my professional journey,” she said.
She was hired at the United Way during that time to help the nonprofit through a merger of five United Way organizations.
As with many merger stories, she said there was some strife from certain benefactors about feeling left behind in some way, so it was her job to help show everyone the decision was for the best.
She also was on the Grand Haven Area Community Foundation board of directors during that time, when the foundation established a development director position. She did not apply for the position, however, feeling fulfilled with the board work and believing that position would be a conflict of interest.
The position became available again about a year later, and she thought: “Maybe the universe is poking me in some way.” She resigned from the board, applied for the job and became GHACF’s next development director.
She moved into the vice president role a couple years later. The president announced her retirement five years later, and Johnson took the top job.
“I really thought I had the perfect job,” Johnson said.
In six years, she grew the team, doubled GHACF’s assets and contributed to some major projects, such as Grand Haven’s new Lynne Sherwood Waterfront Stadium.
Johnson said she was laser-focused on running the organization, but when a position opened as the president of the Frey Foundation, she took notice.
“I wasn't looking, but I was always listening, knowing there was probably another act or two in me professionally,” she said.
“I have always looked really favorably on how the Frey Foundation has shown up in the communities that they love.”
Johnson said she believes the Frey Foundation has played a big role in the changes Grand Rapids has experienced over the past couple decades, and she said she looks forward to stewarding its ongoing legacy.
She said it’s important her values align with the family’s, and after working with them for a few months, she said it’s more and more clear they do.
Johnson said she has always believed in running nonprofits as businesses with budgets, timelines, accountability and competitive salaries.
“We're in the businesses of improving community and improving lives, and that is worthy, just as much as the public and the private sector, and I think that the Frey family believes that, too,” she said.
Edward and Frances Frey established the foundation in 1974. Edward Frey was chairman of Union Bank and Trust Co. — now JPMorgan Chase — and founder of Foremost Insurance. Johnson said she thinks the family sees philanthropy through that lens and therefore always has run its foundation much like a business.
She said her values also align with the foundation’s four areas of focus: building community; children and families; community arts; and environment. In particular, she said the foundation is focusing on low-income housing opportunities and ways to help underserved children succeed, and also was behind the downtown installation of a “LOVE” sculpture by artist Robert Indiana.
While some people may have been surprised Johnson’s new position is in Grand Rapids, not on the lakeshore, she said the two are connected more than some may realize. As the next generation of leaders takes over in West Michigan, Johnson said the area is being seen as more of a region than as individual towns.
Maybe some people expected her to stay at GHACF her whole career, but she does not believe one person should spend too long running an organization; rather, organizations are living entities that need certain fresh perspectives with changing times.
Johnson said she believes learning the differences between the community and family foundation has helped her, too.
“I'm a lifelong learner, and the more I know about different models of philanthropy, I think the better adviser I can be to people of wealth,” Johnson said.
She said her skills are best for leading an organization over a hurdle or through a transition.
At the Frey Foundation, that transition involves the family’s next generation taking seats on the board, which she expects to lead to changes in how the organization operates and invests.
“Great stuff is going to happen, but it's going to be different. It's going to look different; it's going to feel different. We're going to evaluate it differently,” Johnson said. “It's going to resonate in the community, but it's also going to shake up some more institutional styles.”
Johnson said there likely will be aspects that do not change, however, including the family’s desire for partners and co-funders to work alongside them toward community betterment.
Though some next-generation family members do not live in the area, Johnson said the foundation and the majority of its investments always will be based in Grand Rapids to honor the founders’ legacy.