Traverse City News and Events

A ($15 Million) Gift That Literally Keeps On Giving

By Ross Boissoneau | Dec. 9, 2021

The Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation received an early Christmas present, one it’s going to share for years to come. The estate trust of Wilfred and Joan Larson bequeathed $15.4 million to the foundation, its largest single endowment ever.

“We first met the Larsons in 2014. That’s when they made their first donation,” says David Mengebier, president and CEO of the Grand Traverse Regional Community Foundation. All told, over the years the couple’s total donations surpassed $18 million.

“This is the largest single endowment and represents the largest cumulative gift in the 30-year history of the foundation,” says Mengebier. He says that means the fund will generate around $700,000 yearly to area non-profits in perpetuity.

Wilfred and Joan Larsen were high school sweethearts and married in New York in 1949. Wilfred worked in management for a number of companies, retiring as the president and CEO of Westwood-Squibb Pharmaceuticals Inc., after 28 years with the Buffalo, New York-based company. He also was a veteran of both the U.S. Naval Reserve and the U.S. Army. The couple supported philanthropic organizations where they lived, with an emphasis on the arts, conservation and education. Joan Larson was involved in the restoration of historic Fishtown in Leland. She died at age 89 on Sept. 27, 2017, in a rehabilitation center in Traverse City. Wilfred died March 30, 2019, at age 91 in Naples, Florida.

This region was not the only one to benefit from the Larsons’ largesse.  Their trust also gifted the other communities where they had resided: They bequeathed $13.6 million to the Community Foundation of Collier County in Naples, that region’s largest gift ever, and $9.9 million to the Community Foundation of Greater Buffalo, where the couple lived in the 1990s. “The Larsons understood they wanted to have impact where they lived,” says Mengebier. They saw the foundations as entities that could most effectively continue to provide for the causes and charities they supported.

Mengebier says the Wilfred and Joan Larson Endowment is not designated to benefit a specific organization or cause. “This is donor-advised. It’s flexible to opportunities in the five-county region,” Mengebier says.

According to Mengebier, the Larsons wanted to continue to support causes and non-profits they cared about, including women’s issues, children and education, and the environment. “We will work with the advisor to support non-profits in Leelanau County which they had (previously) donated to, but we also want to expand,” says Mengebier. Among the intended beneficiaries going forward are students from Benzie Central, Kalkaska, Kingsley and Elk Rapids. A $10,000 scholarship will be awarded to a student from each school yearly.

To date, $795,893 has been awarded by the Community Foundation from the Larson Endowment. Among the grant partners are Leelanau Christian Neighbors, Leland Public School, Leelanau Children's Center, Interlochen Center for the Arts, Leelanau Conservancy, Fishtown Preservation Society, Leelanau Community Cultural Center, Women's Resource Center, Father Fred Foundation, and Traverse Bay Children's Advocacy Center.

Larry Nelson, a friend of the Larsons and a member of the foundation’s board of directors, was named by the Larsons to serve as the endowment’s advisor.

“We’re excited to continue to work with Larry Nelson to see how we can maximize the impact on the region,” says Mengebier. In early 2022 he and Nelson will meet with the programming staff to craft a strategy to determine where funding can make a significant difference. He says while it is not difficult to find worthy recipients, it is important to ensure the gifts go to the right places in the right amount when they can do the most good, rather than to immediately begin disbursing the funds. “There’s not a rush. This has upped the game, so let’s be thoughtful.”

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