Family Foundation Retreat Navigates Loons, Learning & Laughs

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Mike Gallagher, CMF Editorial Consultant

Neither a smattering of rain, nor a stuck-in-the-muck pontoon boat, nor even flaming, carbonized marshmallows could put a damper on the fun and good cheer of attendees at the Council of Michigan Foundation’s (CMF) recent 13th Biennial Family Foundations Retreat.

Set amid the natural splendor of bucolic forests, shimmering lakes and picturesque gardens in and around Shanty Creek Resort in Bellaire, MI, scores of family foundation leaders and their loved ones gathered for a three-day weekend built around the theme of “Navigating Transitions in Family Philanthropy.

Family Philanthropy Committee co-chairs John and Nancy Colina of the Colina Foundation, along with creative and engaged committee members, made sure there was something for everyone, both young and old, to enjoy.  Committee members included:

  • Susan Cameron, Friedman Family Foundation
  • Betsy Dole, Dole Family Foundation
  • Phillip Fisher, Max M. and Marjorie S. Fisher Foundation
  • Marty Fluharty, Americana Foundation
  • Bill Muir, Keller Family Foundation
  • Carol Paine-McGovern, Paine Family Foundation 
  • Scott Schropp, Iles Family Conservation Scholarship Fund
  • Deborah Stephens, R.E. Olds Foundation
  • Karen Wilson-Smithbauer, Karen Colina Wilson Foundation
  • Peg Talburtt, Lovelight Foundation
  • Diana Tarpoff, R.E. Olds Foundation

Mixed into an agenda of festivities, networking, and family time were three nationally recognized speakers: Virginia Esposito, founding president, National Center for Family Philanthropy; Stephanie Fuerstner Gillis, managing director, Arabella Advisors; and Michael Moody, Frey Foundation Chair for Family Foundations and Philanthropy at the Johnson Center for Philanthropy.

As part of their 100th anniversary celebration, the R.E. Olds Foundation hosted a special reception for old friends and new at the retreat.

The families’ future grantmakers, ranging from toddlers to teens, ventured off on their own with CMF staffers guiding them through various activities designed to engage them in educational, artistic and playful endeavors while also giving them a chance to burn off that youthful excess energy.    

“We had a great time,” smiled Isabel Velasquez, daughter of Chris and Jenee Velasquez (Dow Corning Foundation and the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, respectively). “We had artists showing us how to paint; we went on a hike; and we also got to learn how to make grants.”   

The older youth were given approval to award a total of $1,800 to area nonprofits after learning how to review grant proposals, develop questions they could ask on site visits to see how the prospective nonprofits operated and then decide what programs they wanted to support.

In a presentation made to the adults at the end of the retreat, the youth took turns describing their experiences and the grants they awarded to Grass River Natural Area, Martha Wagbo Farm & Education Center, Raven Hill Discovery Center, Glacial Hills Pathway & Natural Area, Loon Network and Three Lakes Association.

The real fun began Saturday afternoon when the families chose one of two excursions: a scenic pontoon ride on beautiful Lake Bellaire, or a visit to the Grass River Natural Area for a a hearty hike along the wildlife-laden walking trails and then a pontoon ride along the waterways connecting Lake Bellaire, Torch Lake and Clam Lake.

Area nature experts – including retreat attendee Betsy Dole of the Dole Family Foundation –added richness to the experience and informed the grantmakers the connected lakes were home to about 10% of the loon population in Michigan. Dole later led a small group of hikers on a trek on nearby trails.

While some loons were spotted by the pontoon riders visiting the Grass River Natural Area, it was the sporadic sighting of slithering snakes, colorful birds and fabulous fauna that intrigued the walkers the most.

An unexpected moment occurred when one of the three pontoon boats got mired in the muck near the Lake Bellaire dock and refused to budge. “We’re over-weight in the stern,” the vessel’s captain surmised.

After moving most of the chuckling riders to the front of the craft, the pontoon boat still failed to move until Dave - the brave husband of CMF’s senior vice president Debbie McKeon – jumped into the water and with a mighty push propelled the boat into deeper waters and a wonderful experience.

“It was an enjoyable adventure,” chimed in Dr. Thomas Kellogg of the Edward and June Kellogg Foundation after traversing the trails and enjoying the water ride at the Grass River Natural Area.

Later that evening, retreat attendees were transported to the laid-back fun of an outdoor barbeque at nearby Schuss Mountain Village which is part of the Shanty Creek Resort venue. After dinner, everyone enjoyed a leisurely and scenic ski-lift ride to the top of Schuss and back down, played a wicked game of bean bag toss or simply strolled among the open fields of the summertime ski area. 

As the evening progressed, the older and younger grantmakers convened around a giant bonfire for a pleasant time and the making of the ever-popular s’mores.  Several adults, however, just couldn’t seem to find the right method of toasting their marshmallows to a golden hue and instead, like Sara Whiting of the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation, found themselves holding flaming, charbroiled nuggets of hardened sugar.

“I guess I was just talking too much and not paying close enough attention,” laughed Whiting as she looked for a place to hide her failed culinary creation.

CMF President/CEO Rob Collier, usually a stalwart bonfire aficionado at such family foundation retreats, appeared at one point to have trouble handling his gooey, crumbling concoction much to the amusement of those watching his gallant efforts to tame the wild summertime treat.

A Sunday wrap-up included two more adult learning sessions, including “Herding Cats: Making Decisions that Everyone Owns” by Arabella Advisor’s Gillis and family philanthropy roundtable discussions facilitated by Frey Foundation Chair Moody.

“This entire retreat was both educational and a whole lot of fun,” said Scott Schropp of the Iles Family Conservation Scholarship Fund.         

Debbie Stephens of the R.E. Olds Foundation agreed. “It’s just great to be with so many terrific people and get a chance to let your hair down. Every family foundation should join in on all this fun!”                                                              

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