FREMONT—The Gerber Foundation has a new top advocate for improving the quality of life for infants and young children who has a deeply personal connection to the organization’s mission.
Sara Hohnstein joined the Fremont-based private foundation this month as its new executive director, stepping into a role “pioneered” by Catherine Obits, who is capping a 23-year career and retiring at the end of the year.
In taking on this position, Hohnstein says she is committed to listening to and learning from the foundation’s partners and trustees “to ensure that the Gerber Foundation remains rooted in its rich tradition of excellence, but is flexible enough to respond to our ever-changing world”.
She comes to the Gerber Foundation with more than 10 years of experience on both sides of the grant process and as a social worker. Most recently, she served as Vice President of Operations, proposing projects for the Issachar Fund, a private foundation based in Grand Rapids focused on the intersection of science, big questions and human flourishing. She also previously managed a community center in Omaha that included a pantry, health clinic and case management services.
“I sat in the place of both the scholarship holder and the scholarship applicant,” said Hohnstein MiBiz. “I think that has given me a lot of respect for people who are trying to make a difference in the world and need grants to do it. As such, I hope that people who come across the Gerber Foundation will find us to be transparent and clear about our focus and processes, and a helpful resource for their work.”
Barbara Ivens, CEO of the Gerber Foundation, cited Hohnstein’s knowledge of all facets of the grant process as a differentiating factor and “a key quality that she brings to the position.”
“Sara’s experience managing the grant lifecycle, from applicant request to final report, and her budgeting and financial management experience to be successful in this role,” said Ivens. “Sara brings curiosity and a fresh perspective that will help the foundation fulfill its mission.”
One aspect of the Gerber Foundation that piqued Hohenstein’s interest was its emphasis on both national-level research and local-level activities, consistent with their previous experiences.
“The focus of the foundation, improving the quality of life for infants and young children, was extremely appealing to me,” she said. “Supporting research and programs that aim to give children the best possible start in life is incredibly important and something I feel deeply invested in.”
That personal investment came into focus a few years ago for Hohnstein, who, as a first-time mother, gave birth to twin sons early despite a healthy pregnancy. After the premature births, Hohnstein and her husband became very acquainted with the Gerber Foundation’s Newborn Center at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids.
Hohnstein said her family has been “incredibly fortunate” to have access to quality products, made possible in part by the Gerber Foundation’s $5 million investment used to build the neonatal intensive care unit at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital contributed.
“The personal experience of being a ‘NICU mom’ helps me feel personally connected to the research we fund and what’s at stake,” said Hohnstein. “Premature babies are vulnerable and often face a precarious future. I am honored to work for an organization that supports ongoing research focused on expanding the knowledge base on optimal infant and young child care.”
Now she has the opportunity to bring her personal and professional experience to the leadership of an organization whose mission “I am deeply committed to”.
Serve as a catalyst
Originally founded in 1952 as the Gerber Baby Foods Fund by Daniel Gerber, Sr. and the Gerber Products Co., the organization has evolved its investment focus over the years, beginning with awards to a number of community organizations working in the areas of agriculture, education and young children Nursing and youth programs are active.
Acquired as Gerber Products Co. in 1994 by Sandoz Ltd. was sold, the Gerber Foundation became a separately endowed private foundation under its current name.
Since last year, the foundation has donated $123 million to recipients around the world. In 2021 alone, the Gerber Foundation awarded nearly $4.2 million in grants, including nearly $362,000 in West Michigan, according to its annual report.
The foundation ended 2020 with total net worth of nearly $85.8 million, according to its most recent filings with the IRS.
Approximately 70 percent of Gerber Foundation grants go to support applied research into health and nutrition issues in infants and young children, with a focus on finding solutions to common problems and advances in disease prevention and treatment. The foundation also supports pediatric research on environmental health hazards.
In addition, the Gerber Foundation provides grants to support youth programs focused on health, literacy, education and life enrichment in a four-county area of West Michigan, including Newaygo, Muskegon, Lake and Oceana counties.
The foundation also awards competitive college scholarships to students from select high schools with a similar footprint throughout the region.
According to Hohnstein, the Gerber Foundation’s work in the area — and particularly its funding of research projects at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital, including a $350,000 grant last year — has helped fuel the growing cluster of medical research and Boost innovation along the Medical Mile in Grand Rapids.
“The medical research that’s happening in our field is really impressive,” she said. “We have funded research projects at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital and continue to build a strong relationship with them. We also encourage other institutions in our area to submit research concept papers to us if they work in our priority areas.”
Board Chairman Ivens echoed this view, noting that the Foundation “wants to act as a catalyst for new ideas/research that will improve the nutrition, care and development of infants and young children, and knowledge of the impact of nutrition on their health and development want to contribute. ”
Now, Hohnstein plans to apply the knowledge she’s gained in her career to help the Gerber Foundation fulfill its promise.
“We will also listen carefully to our partners, evaluate the research and learn continuously,” said Hohnstein. “We want to stay at the forefront of pediatric health and nutrition research and be proactively engaged in our community.”