With Women’s History Month underway, there is no better fit than to highlight a Broad Spartan bubbling up creative ideas to make the world a better place. And finance sophomore Grace Griffin, founder of the Grace Giving Foundation, is achieving philanthropic efforts one gumball machine at a time.
“Through my experience and guidance from mentors, I have been able to learn more about running a business than I thought imaginable at my age,” Griffin said. “I am very grateful for my experience and eager to continue growing that knowledge. I have always been passionate about business, and this foundation has only confirmed and increased my passion.”
In 2019, Griffin first unwrapped the idea during her sophomore year of high school and created the registered 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization to raise money for a wide range of causes, including helping cancer patients pay for their living expenses. The organization’s goal is to help as many communities as possible by placing various kinds of vending machines in high-foot-traffic areas — and her reach spans the country, in venues like the Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport and Renaissance Center Marriott at the GM World Headquarters in Michigan all the way to the Long Beach Convention Center and Toyota Arena in California, along with several malls through Simon Property Group.
Through gumball machines, claw machines, ATMs, soda vending machines and more, Griffin’s foundation generates about $10,000 worth of proceeds per month in an unconventional way that sets it apart from most other organizations.
Griffin’s passion for helping her community came from her father, a cancer survivor who volunteered at their local county hospital and cancer center in Brighton, Michigan, throughout her childhood.
“I saw how he was able to help, and I knew I wanted to do my part for my community as well,” she shared. “I initially met with the philanthropy team at St. Joseph Mercy Hospital, now known as Trinity Health, to see what I could do. I wanted to work with cancer patients and do what I could to help them and their families.”
After meeting with that team, Griffin knew she wanted to help raise money for the living expenses of families with a loved one fighting cancer, such as paying for babysitters, buying clothing, securing food or paying for utility bills. The hope was to do something that would be effective almost immediately and take some of the weight off the shoulders of patients who are often unable to work while going through costly treatment. With Griffin’s ambition and compassion, she was determined to embark on this new journey with the help of her father.
“My father owned his own business and was delighted at the opportunity to teach me the ins and outs of running a company. He is a huge reason why I was able to take the foundation to such great lengths,” she said.
“The goal was to create something more perpetual that would be able to generate a steady stream of proceeds which we could then donate to our local cancer center,” she continued. “I wanted to set myself apart from other foundations and create something that would generate proceeds on an ongoing basis rather than asking for donations annually.”
After chewing on ideas, Griffin decided vending machines would be the ideal approach. From there, she and her father found a manufacturer that was interested in working with the foundation, established a board of directors and began their outreach.
“I started small, reaching out to companies in my county and calling up owners to see if they would like to support the cause and directly help the community. It was a challenge getting the courage at first to go and sell my idea to anyone who would listen. I was nervous and excited, but practice makes perfect, and soon talking to business owners, managers, Rotary Boards and churches felt like second nature,” Griffin explained.
Griffin’s very first candy machines were placed in local restaurants and small businesses. As the organization grew, she expanded to include claw machines, soda machines, 5-foot-tall gumball machines and ATMs. The foundation places machines in malls, sports arenas, hospitals, corporate headquarters, airports and many other locations. There is no effort on the company’s side as the foundation designs, tailors, ships, installs and maintains the machines.
Griffin eventually came across a machine that would later become the foundation’s signature product: a 7-foot-tall gumball machine, the world’s largest.
As the Grace Giving Foundation has continued to slowly expand, Griffin has connected with larger organizations by directly reaching out to CEOs and executives of Fortune 500 companies such as PepsiCo, Mastercard, Best Buy and Jackson National.
“It was very difficult convincing a multi-billion-dollar enterprise to listen to a young girl who was asking for space on their property and a donation,” she said. “I have been very persistent and sent hundreds of emails, hoping one person would get back to me. When they didn’t respond after a couple of days or weeks, I reached out again. Eventually, my perseverance paid off, and slowly, people started saying yes. I modified my approach and messaging and found new, creative ways to convince companies to participate in our mission. Over time, more and more companies agreed, and we became recognized and sought after. Our company grew, and so did our recommendations.”
Griffin’s dream of helping her local community has now expanded to helping those in need nationwide. The foundation supports causes ranging from cancer support, multiple sclerosis support and family grief groups to COVID-19 support and helping hospitals acquire specialized equipment.
Each machine installed through the foundation is raising money for a different cause chosen by either the hosting company or the foundation. In exchange, the machine acts as a marketing tool for the companies who sponsor them by displaying year-round advertising and helping unite corporations with their community. The foundation has a mutually beneficial relationship with corporations by helping corporate teams grow in philanthropy, becoming more visible and providing a more personal touch with their community.
“The foundation became more than I ever imagined,” Griffin said. “Our mission is being received tremendously, and it is amazing to see how many individuals and families we have been able to help and will continue to help. We started in our local community and grew across all North America, and hopefully, one day internationally. I am extremely grateful to everyone who has agreed to support us and has helped us grow as much as we have. There were 100 noes for every one yes we received, but it made the success so much more rewarding.”
For five years, Griffin has been able to fine-tune her communication skills and learn about the inner workings of running a sizable nonprofit and all its facets. Now, the Broad College curriculum is helping her further develop her skillset, and she sees it as a tremendous asset.
“I have been able to get my name out there and received great feedback regarding internships and job applications,” she said. “The combination of my MSU Broad business school experience and my foundation experience will be a winning combination in whatever the future holds. I hope to make Broad proud of my success.”
As for advice for fellow women in business and entrepreneurs, Griffin urges them to stay persistent and never take “no” for an answer.
“The world wants to take the easy route and deny you, but you can’t let it be that simple. If you have a true passion for something, don’t let anyone tell you that it won’t work.”