Inside the Heart of Philanthropy with Diana Sieger

by Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus 

The mobile is immense, a mass of bright red surrounded by a smattering of soothing blue shapes. From certain angles, it is difficult to tell exactly what it is, but step just right, and you witness a delightful reveal; a large, luminous heart around which life flows.

Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (GRCF), stands under the piece where it hangs in the upper level of the GRCF lobby and studies it warmly.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” she expressed.

And it is. Created in 2008 by a group of young students led by artist Michael Phleghaar through the Urban Institute for Contemporary Arts’ Artworks program, the mobile is titled, “The Heart of Philanthropy.” It is allegorical of the GRCF’s pursuit  to provide financial backing to help our community soar, one Sieger has come to embody in the 31 years she has spent at the helm of the foundation.

Sieger grew up in Detroit during the ’60s at the height of the Civil Rights Movement and volunteered at an inner-city Head Start program for a summer during her teenage years, which forged the lens through which she would come to see the world and lead the GRCF.

“That experience gave me the impetus to go to college and get a sociology degree,” she said, adding with a laugh that people often asked what she would possibly do with such a degree.

After graduating from Western Michigan University in 1973, Sieger moved to Grand Rapids and took a job as a case worker for the American Red Cross aiding military families with disaster services.

“That gave me a real view of personal lives that are troubled by outside circumstances,” Sieger expressed.

While working at the Red Cross, she was encouraged to return to school and earn a master’s degree in social work with an emphasis in policy planning and administration. Upon graduating, she began working as a program policy analyst for United Way, ultimately becoming the assistant vice president of planning and allocations. In 1986, the former president of the GRCF retired, and Sieger applied  for the job, feeling as though it may just be the next step on her journey. Her hunch was right, and in 1987, she was hired. She notes that the GRCF she was stepping into was very different from what it is today; now with 28 employees, back then, Sieger was the lone staff member.

“Four months after I started, I hired two staff members,” she smiled. “And off we went.”

There are 756 community foundations across the United States, 61 one of which are in Michigan, the largest amount in a single state.

These foundations are tax-exempt charities that augment philanthropy by guiding donors, whether they are individuals, families, businesses or organizations, to create permanent charitable funds to meet the needs
of communities as they evolve. Foundations strategically administer and invest the funds within the areas they serve.

The Grand Rapids Community Foundation was founded in 1922 by Lee Hutchins, a Grand Rapids entrepreneur, pursuant to his “vision of perpetuating the moral, physical, and mental welfare of the city and its people.”  To date, the foundation has awarded more than $200 million in grants toward programs that uplift the community. During Sieger’s time at the foundation, donor assets have gone from $35 million to more than $330 million.

From making grants to fund a tuberculosis X-ray bus in the ’50s to allocating funds to create a police-community relations in program in ’60s to a present-day program dedicated solely to identifying the needs of and supporting the city’s LGBTQ+ community,  a glance at GRCF’s history will reflect an acute alignment with Grand Rapids’ evolving social issues.

“Our business is to make a significant difference in the community through wise investment of the assets and making great grants but also getting involved in community issues,” Sieger emphasized.

She is quick to point out that GRCF is not a solo act, but instead works in collaboration with many private foundations, corporations, businesses and nonprofit group across the city.

“It’s the only way,” she expressed. “There is no such thing as one organization that will save the world. It can only be done together.”

Equity

Under Sieger’s leadership, GRCF has adapted what she calls “an equity lens.”

The foundation is collaborating with Public Agency, a social enterprise for West Michigan Center for Arts + Technology (WMCAT) which utilizes human-centered design, a groundbreaking design process that revolves around the people for whom systems are being created and problems are being solved. Through interviews with people in the community who are affected by and are working to eradicate poverty and discrimination at both systems and grassroots level, they are working to find solutions for issues that plague the city’s most vulnerable populations.

“This is new ground,” Sieger said. “This is where you really live by the word of making resources available to people who may not have been heard before. We have to ask, ‘What world do we want
to become?’”

Challenge Scholars

When asked which program she is most proud of in her three decades of heading the foundation, her answer is immediate: Challenge Scholars.

In 2011 the GRCF started the Challenge Scholars program to address low high school graduation rate and elevated poverty on city’s north west side — a predominantly Hispanic and African American area — by supporting students early on in their education through to their high school graduation. Students will then be able to attend an in-state college or trade school tuition-free. The program is currently available to qualifying students attending Harrison Park Elementary, Westwood Middle School and Union High School. The first class of Challenge Scholars graduates from high school in 2020.

“It’s about giving students and their families a fighting chance to do well,” Sieger passionately expressed.

Seiger points out that when the program began, the West Side was not yet booming with new development; now, it is a thriving dining and shopping district, which Seiger says, comes at a cost.

“Families are being displaced,” she said. “We cannot sugar coat that.”

The foundation recently expanded the focus of the Challenge Scholars program from the schools to the surrounding neighborhoods in order to meet the challenges that inevitably arise with development.

“It’s hard work,” Sieger expressed. “There are so many successes, though, and to look into the eyes of the students is an absolute joy.

The Future

Sieger’s days are filled with donor meetings, managing staff, updating GRCF board members, gathering with foundation colleagues and more.

“Rarely is there a day that I sit at my desk,” she laughed.

Sieger’s greatest strength in her leadership lies in her ability to approach the community with both passion and pragmatism; two qualities that fuse in perfect balance.

“This community has so much success upon which to build,” she said. “And we need to lift that up and invest in education, food security, meeting basics needs, the arts: The things that feed our souls. All of that will help  families prosper. Even the little things that people do, whether through volunteering or financial support, means a very great deal. The strength of this community rests with the involvement of its citizens who give of themselves.”


When she is not editing for WLM, Elyse enjoys traveling to far off lands, enjoying live music, and practicing kung fu. She is also the owner of Your Story, a personal biography writing service for senior citizens.


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