EDITOR’S NOTE: This WyoFile feature was first published on January 25, 2011. Foster Friess made news recently with his enthusiastic support of GOP presidential candidate Rick Santorum. We’re proud to bring this feature to the attention of readers who would like to know more about Mr. Friess.
It was one of those Jackson Hole parties that you sometimes hear about, the kind that make Wyomingites who live outside the valley groan at the excess — or green with envy.
Foster Friess and his wife, Lynn, celebrated their 70th birthdays last July with four days of dinners, receptions and activities for 200 friends. All expenses were covered by the Friesses, and the weekend culminated with a dinner party at the Four Seasons Hotel in Teton Village, where the men dressed up in tuxedo jackets, bolo ties and cowboy boots.
Any bash organized by Foster Friess, one of Wyoming’s richest residents and most idiosyncratic philanthropists, has to feature a surprise, and this was one was a doozy.
In the invitations to the party, Friess, a born-again Christian, had asked the guests to identify their favorite charity that reflected the values of his favorite quote from Galatians: “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”
He vowed to give $70,000 to the most worthy nominee.
As the Four Seasons wait staff distributed envelopes on silver platters, Friess asked the lucky winner to stand up and shout, and for the other guests to remain seated. Then he sat back and waited for the mayhem.
Within seconds of ripping into the envelopes, people exploded up from every table, shouting “I won! I won!” The Friesses had surprised their guests by writing $70,000 checks to every one of the nominated charities — a show of generosity that cost the hosts $7.7 million. (In most cases, each couple at the party designated a single charity.)
“It was chaotic, and so emotional,” said Joan Clark, a nurse from Maryland who is related to the Friesses by marriage. “In typical Foster form, he dragged it out as long as he could.”
Jackson nonprofit organizations were among the biggest winners on the night. Eight local charities took home a total of $630,000.
The giveaway may have stunned the attendees — and the many nonprofit groups that received gifts from a total stranger. But it had all the hallmarks of Foster Friess, who is known for his creative approaches to philanthropy, and for leveraging his grant making by involving others.
Water Missions International, a Christian charity based in South Carolina that helps provide safe drinking water in developing countries, took home more than $200,000 from the dinner.
“Someone turned to me and said, ‘The Lord really knew what he was doing when he gave Foster and Lynn all the money, because they really love to give it away,’” said Molly F. Greene III, a co-founder of Water Missions.
RESPONDING TO DISASTERS
Friess moved his investment business to Jackson nearly two decades ago, and in 2001 sold a majority stake in the company for $251 million. He owes his fortune to astute stock-picking while leading the Brandywine Mutual Funds, and he retains a keen sense for knowing when to put money to work.
When disaster strikes, he is often among the first philanthropists to respond. He and Lynn gave a total of $5 million to relief efforts immediately after the Asian tsunami, Hurricane Katrina and the Haiti earthquake. In February 2010, just a month after the catastrophic earthquake hit Haiti, he flew to the country so that he could report to donors who had contributed to his $2 million matching fund about how the money was being used.
Friess became a born-again Christian in 1978, at a time when he was bored with his six-figure income and his marriage was in trouble. He now calls God “the chairman of the board of my life.”
“I believe that we are merely stewards, not owners, of what God has given to us,” Friess said via email. “I tell friends who accuse me of being generous that it’s the Lord’s money, and if it were mine, they wouldn’t be getting a dead red cent.”
In 2004, Friess used a version of that line in announcing a $1 million gift to the University of Wyoming at a Jackson-area reception. Pete Jorgensen, a recently retired state representative (D-Jackson), attended the reception and remembered thinking the comment was strange.
“As long as you know that the gifts are conditioned by the Lord, if nothing else, he is a generous person,” Jorgensen said of Friess.
It’s not surprising that Foster Friess can raise some hackles. He’s very rich, very conservative and very Christian — and he very much likes to share his views. On his blog, he has criticized health-care reform, blasted the liberal bias of the media and questioned the science behind global warming.
Yet friends say he tempers what could be perceived as preachiness with a vibrant personality and a sense of humor. In recent speeches to Rotary clubs around the country, he uses this line after the customary fawning introduction:
“Everybody realizes I’m intelligent, handsome, rich and successful,” he deadpans. “What really annoys me is nobody ever brings up my humility.”
RICH BEYOND HIS DREAMS
In addition to their home in Jackson, the Friesses own a 300-acre ranch on the South Fork of the Shoshone River, near Cody, and a home in Scottsdale, Ariz. Friess grew up in Rice Lake, Wis., a town that he says is, in many ways, similar to Cody. He was among the first generation in his family to go to college. His father sold cattle and horses for a living, and his mother had dropped out of school in eighth grade to pick cotton and help save the family farm in Texas.
Friess excelled at the University of Wisconsin, where he met Lynn. After cutting his teeth in the investment business, he founded Friess Associates at age 34. His flagship Brandywine Fund outperformed market averages during the bull market of the 1980s and 1990s, and assets in the business swelled to a peak of $15.7 billion. As Friess puts it, in a Yogi Berra-like quip that captures the remarkable growth: “The firm grew beyond any expectations we could have ever imagined.”
He moved his family and the company’s headquarters to Jackson in 1992. Friess Associates occupies a prominent building just down the street from the Snow King Resort.
Friess says he was attracted to Jackson, in part, because the wealthy people he met there seemed down-to-earth and weren’t full of themselves.
“That always strikes us whenever we go to Nora’s and see multi-millionaires seated next to guys that run the ski lifts or hang drywall,” Friess said.
The couple quickly embraced the Western spirit. On his website, Friess is in a yellow rain slicker, astride a horse, in the Wind River Mountains. Last year, Lynn published her second children’s book, “Western Lullaby,” a story about a little cowgirl at bedtime.
Two of the couple’s four grown children also live in Jackson. Steve Friess helps oversee giving by the Lynn and Foster Friess Family Foundation, and works with Washington think tanks to advance policies of limited government. Carrie recently finished a stint as chair of the board of the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole.
When Foster Friess is not traveling in his private jet — an avid hunter, he’s recently gone after grizzlies in Alaska and cape buffalo in Tanzania — he likes to cross-country ski or hike up the butte behind his Jackson-area home with his dog, Ella. In Cody, Friess hones his shooting skills at the trap range on his ranch and enjoys floating down the South Fork on a catamaran-like raft.
He says his appreciation for the state is part of the reason he gave $1 million to the University of Wyoming in 2004.
“This is now our new home. We need to make an investment in the institutions of Wyoming, and the university is a logical place to do that,” he said.
A PRETTY TAX HAVEN
But Friess is also candid about his primary reason for moving to Jackson Hole: it was the prettiest U.S-based tax haven he could find.
“We decided to move to Jackson to avoid the increasingly onerous taxes we were paying in Pennsylvania and Delaware,” he said.
For most people, taxes are a drag because they reduce income. But Foster Friess, a generous supporter of Republican political candidates, had another motivation: He detests government involvement in just about everything.
“If you look at the solutions that government comes up with, they’re almost always an unmitigated disaster,” Friess said at a recent speech to a Rotary Club in Minnesota.
In 1997, Friess offered the Grand Teton Musical Festival $40,000 if it would decline nearly $11,000 in government support. The ensuing controversy — could the symphony be bought by an opponent to the National Endowment for the Arts? — was featured in the New York Times. The symphony ultimately took his money.
Friess gives to conservative think tanks like the American Enterprise Institute, and to education groups that advocate for school voucher programs, including the Alliance for School Choice. In the near future, Friess expects to make grants to advocate for the FairTax — which would replace the current federal system of taxation with a tax on retail sales.
A year ago, he made a $3 million for-profit investment in the Daily Caller to help get that news site, led by political pundit Tucker Carlson, off the ground. In typical Friess fashion, he offered the funding to Carlson and partner Neil Patel, who owns a home in Jackson, during a meeting over lunch before the aspiring media moguls had even finished their salads.
Carlson and Patel (who was an aide to former Vice President Dick Cheney) are “two great human beings who love America and have an entrepreneurial spirit,” Friess said.
One of Friess’s primary grant-making areas is supporting Muslim organizations that champion a pluralistic, violence-free version of Islam. Foster and Lynn Friess made a significant grant in 2007 to the American Islamic Forum for Democracy, which combats radical Islam and advocates for a greater separation of mosque and state. The Phoenix-based charity, which had been getting by on a budget of just $15,000 per year prior to the Friess’s gift, now has a staff of four, according to its president, M. Zuhdi Jasser.
The LibforAll Foundation, co-founded by a former president of Indonesia and C. Holland Taylor, an American entrepreneur, has received $375,000 from the Friesses since 2008. The group uses a variety of strategies to combat religious extremism in southeast Asia and the Middle East, including working with a pop singer in Indonesia on a hit song that discredits radicalism.
“Foster is a Christian who is engaged with Christianity in his heart, and not just in his head,” said Taylor, who has twice gone pheasant hunting with Friess in South Dakota. “There’s a spiritual power behind what he does.”
The Jackson area has also been a big beneficiary of the Friess’s giving. After Foster Friess sold control of his business in 2001, he and Lynn set up a donor-advised fund worth $26 million at the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole. A donor-advised fund allows someone to take a tax deduction in the year of the gift, and then pay out grants from the fund over multiple years.
For several years, the Friesses were major donors to Old Bill’s Fun Run, the signature Jackson Hole fundraising event that annually raises millions of dollars for local charities.
“Foster was an early enthusiast of this idea,” said Katharine Conover, the community foundation’s president. “He had the vision, the foresight, and the heart to see how important this could be for the community.”
Although the couple no longer supports the event, Conover said she still calls Foster Friess when she learns of a project that she thinks would pique his interest. In 2008, a local scoutmaster was diagnosed with incurable cancer and asked the community foundation for help in carrying out his dream of buying a snowcat. The scout leader wanted to take kids who couldn’t ski well high into the mountains so they could enjoy the experience of backcountry winter camping. Conover called Friess, who helped purchase the snowcat.
“Foster likes micro-impacts with macro consequences,” Conover said. “A whole group of boys now appreciate the wilderness in ways that they wouldn’t have without his gift.”
Friess put Nancy Schneider, his friend and neighbor, in charge of a program that provides a four- or five-day, all-expenses-paid vacation, usually to a West Coast city, to any married residents of Jackson with disabled children. The idea is that parents of disabled children need an occasional break just to focus on their own relationship.
Friess’s son, Michael, is deaf.
“Foster knows their stress,” Schneider said. “He wants to give them a chance to stay out late, sleep in and remember why they got married.”
Schneider said Friess isn’t just a pocket-book philanthropist. Last winter, he walked into the Good Samaritan Mission, a shelter in Jackson, and met Jason, a resident of the mission. He took Jason to lunch at a country club, to stores at the base of Jackson’s ski resort to buy warm clothes, and to the National Museum of Wildlife Art to see paintings and sculpture. On the way back to the shelter, they drove past Friess’s church, the Presbyterian Church of Jackson Hole.“There are a lot of good people here,” Friess told the homeless man. “You might want to see if this is place you’d like to be.”
Lynn Friess is a champion of the National Museum of Wildlife Art, on the outskirts of Jackson. She ended a term on the board in September and helped start a $4.5 million campaign in 2004 to eliminate the museum’s debt.
“I called Lynn the ‘energy chairman’ when she was the chair of the board,” said Jim McNutt, the museum’s president. “She really puts herself into projects.”
Foster Friess says he and Lynn aren’t as active philanthropically in the Cody area, since they tend to cocoon at the ranch, 32 miles from town. “Our interaction with the Cody social scene is somewhat limited,” he said.
The future of the Friess’s giving in Wyoming is unclear. The fund at the Community Foundation of Jackson Hole has essentially been exhausted, and Friess says he has no plans to make another large gift. Lately, he’s been routing his giving through the Atlanta-based National Christian Foundation, one of the nation’s largest providers of donor-advised funds.
Tax returns show that from 2007 to 2009, more than 99 percent of the $20.1 million in grant dollars awarded by the Friess Family Foundation went to the National Christian Foundation.
Friess says the National Christian Foundation provides valuable research on charities, and handles bookkeeping functions that would otherwise require a larger staff at the family foundation.
“In the case of our death, we feel very confident that the Christian values that Lynn and I feel are so important to our nation will be honored,” Friess said.
But it’s a structure that concerns some philanthropy watchdogs, including Aaron Dorfman, executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy. He notes that it’s impossible to know exactly what Friess is supporting through the National Christian Foundation, since the foundation reports its grants without linking them to specific donor-advised funds, including the fund established by Foster and Lynn Friess.
Dorfman also says the grant-making process at the Friess Foundation, which listed assets of $113 million in 2009, could theoretically be a way around federal rules that require private foundations to pay out more than 5 percent of their assets each year. The funds from the Friess Foundation could be transferred to the donor-advised fund at the National Christian Foundation and simply sit there.
“It’s certainly possible that they aren’t actually getting the money into groups doing good work in communities,” Dorfman says.
Both Friess and David Wills, president of the National Christian Foundation, say the Friess’s fund at the National Christian Foundation is being spent down aggressively. Friess hasn’t calculated exactly how grants distributed from the fund at the National Christian Foundation correspond to the valuation of the Friess Foundation.
“My guess is it’s probably well over the 5 percent number,” he said.
He seems baffled by all the fuss.
“Who really cares what we give money to in the first place?” he said. “Why is that of any interest to anyone?”
It’s a curious question for him to ask, since friends say Friess himself is eternally curious about what others are doing to improve their own communities. Friess tends to set the tone at dinner parties he hosts, quashing small talk in favor of a table-wide conversation about meatier issues.
“You’ll be at a dinner party,” Schneider said, “and he’ll say, ‘Let’s go around the room and talk about what we’re doing to make the world a better place. We’ll start with you.’”
Schneider concedes that the highly structured discussions chafe some people, but added: “It’s always interesting. You never go home thinking, ‘Boy that was a bore.’”
The extravagant $7.7 million payout to charities at the July bash was partly a way for Foster Friess to do something nice for his friends, but those who know him well say there was surely a little calculation behind the idea as well.
Wills, of the National Christian Foundation, points out that some of the guests at the Friess event might try the same concept at their own parties. The wily former mutual-fund manager may have been looking for a way to compound the returns on his philanthropy.
“In the Christian vernacular, you would call Foster a giving evangelist,” Wills said. “He just can’t help but encourage other people to give.”