NonprofitMeeting crises with compassion and business realismDenise Frey

Executive director and CEO

YWCA Sonoma County

1421 Guerneville Road, Suite 200

Santa Rosa 95401



SANTA ROSA -- One of the ugly realities of tough economic times is that domestic violence tends to spike, a phenomenon that YWCA of Sonoma Executive Director and CEO Denise Frey is all too familiar with. At the same time, economic downturn also leads inevitably to funding cuts and a decline in charitable giving in the nonprofit world.

Yet during the worst financial crisis since the Depression, Ms. Frey has managed to expand YWCA Sonoma County services for battered women and their children by doubling the agency’s private funding sources  – which now cover a third of the agency’s budget – and to develop a significant cash reserve while streamlining operations.

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Ms. Frey also led the cause to create the Family Justice Center of Sonoma County over the past three years, building collaborative relationships between public and private partners that have resulted in $1.5 million in federal and private funding. Ms. Frey has advocated in Sacramento for victims' rights to secure emergency funding and raise awareness about the need for the center, where the YWCA will play a crucial role in providing coordinated delivery of social services.

YWCA Sonoma County, founded in 1975, serves women and children who are either victims or at risk of domestic violence. YWCA operates the Safe House, a shelter for battered women and their children that temporarily houses and supports up to 24 families, as well as A Special Place Preschool. Other services include individual and group therapy, peer support groups, legal services, educational counseling and housing placement assistance.

Ms. Frey began her nonprofit career in 1980 as a volunteer for a battered women’s shelter in San Diego, herself a survivor of domestic violence as a young woman. She was hired as a community educator to speak in schools about healthy relationships and domestic violence. This led to developing that program’s curriculum, and then in 1985, Ms. Frey became the director of domestic violence services and programs for the YWCA of San Diego County.

“I was very fortunate to be working in San Diego at a time when domestic violence had reached national consciousness,” Ms. Frey said. Congress passed the National Violence Against Women Act in 1995, creating the U.S. Department of Justice's Office on Violence Against Women and establishing the National Domestic Violence Hotline, among many other initiatives.

Ms. Frey was also involved in creating the Family Justice Center in San Diego during that time, the very first such center to bring critical services for victims of family violence under one roof, becoming a model for the rest of the nation.

When Ms. Frey came to Sonoma County in 2003 to become the national development director for Canine Companions for Independence, she was aware of the campaign to establish a Family Justice Center in Sonoma County.

Though Canine Companions represented a departure from the cause that built her career, working with a team of fundraising professionals served to hone the fund development skills she brought to the YWCA in 2006.

Ms. Frey created the YWCA’s popular Women, Wine and Cheese fundraising event, an annual all-women’s luncheon that honors local women winemakers and cheese makers. This year’s sell-out event held in May raised more than $120,000 through a raucous live auction. Because the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn donates the venue, all event proceeds go directly to the YWCA.

Ms. Frey attributes her YWCA successes to her business-minded approach to both advocacy and nonprofit management.

“I am a businesswoman,” she said. “I don’t sell a product, I sell a mission: changing the world, saving lives and saving children. This is a business issue. From a business perspective, domestic violence costs this country millions and millions of dollars year.”

Part of Ms. Frey’s strategic vision for YWCA Sonoma County – and also one of her greatest challenges – is to take the agency “from Birkenstocks to business suits.” For the YWCA, which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year as the oldest women’s organization in the country, this represents a cultural shift.

“Like many nonprofits, the YWCA started out as grassroots movement. I look back at the women before me and say ‘thank you’ because we would not be where we are today without their efforts,” Ms. Frey said. “I want to respect that history and yet, in the field of empowerment of women, domestic violence work and nonprofit work, we must be willing to mature without losing our values. We have to be able to adopt more professional business practices to run more efficiently and develop partnerships that continue to advance the mission.”

Ms. Frey's leadership, organizational skills and drive to professionalize the YWCA of Sonoma County have created a much more streamlined organization, according to Renee Amochaev of Wells Fargo Advisors LLC, who serves as treasurer on the YWCA Board of Directors. Ms. Frey has implemented performance measurement systems and best practices throughout the agency in the areas of financial management, staff/board assessment and the delivery of programs and services.

“Despite deep budgetary and staffing cuts, she rallied and motivated her over-worked staff of 30 to take on even more burden,” Ms. Amochaev said. “Denise's leadership has helped steer the agency into profitability, allowing it to thrive and deliver in the most demanding of circumstances.”

The results of Ms. Frey’s efforts have proven so effective that the YWCA regional affiliate, Southwest/Delta Region, has adopted many of YWCA Sonoma County’s policies and procedures. Ms. Frey was elected as president for 2010-11 of the Southwest/Delta Region, which includes 22 associations in eight states. She also serves on the YWCA USA National Coordinating Board Strategic Regional Leadership Committee.

If fundraising and business acumen are critical to running a nonprofit successfully, then vision and passion are absolutely essential.

“Denise's passion for the mission of the YWCA and for the support of victims of domestic violence and their children is truly infectious,” observed Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has worked extensively with Ms. Frey on the Family Justice Center project. “The YWCA's exposure has been dramatically increased because of her ability to convey that passion wherever she goes.”