Summer’s over, but for many Massachusetts families, the memories linger on. That’s because from July 3 to September 4, Boston’s Highland Street Foundation sponsored Free Fun Fridays at each of 10 museums and other attractions across the state. Thousands of children and families enjoyed a free experience that some might not otherwise be able to afford, and the 10 institutions attracted new supporters. The effort is a powerful example of how a small family foundation can have a huge impact with a relatively modest sum.

The effort, which earned reams of publicity and received praise from the state’s lieutenant governor and Boston’s mayor, was a big turnaround for a foundation that started out giving very quietly.

“We spent several years purposely under the radar,” explained David McGrath III, the founder’s son. The reason for their anonymous giving was a combination of the family’s modesty and a desire not to be inundated with grantseekers that didn’t fit the foundation’s mission. The name derives not from the family but from the street the founder grew up on.

Seeking a way to mark the foundation’s 20th anniversary, the trustees decided to undertake two projects. One was to award $100,000 grants to each of 20 nonprofit organizations that are addressing some of the most pressing needs in their communities during the current economic crisis. But the $2 million in additional grantmaking was overshadowed by the second idea, Free Fridays, which totaled $250,000. For the 10 institutions chosen to receive grant dollars to defray one day of lost admission fees, the impact was enormous.

Most of the museums set all time attendance records on the days they were open free to the public. “There’s a bounce affect,” McGrath noted. The foundation heard from people who said “my child enjoyed the children’s museum so much that we went back and joined.” The organizations, which included zoos, art and science museums and historic attractions, received statewide publicity, which increased their visitor totals on other days, too, and is expected to result in more financial support.

The Free Fun Fridays program also was designed to address the difficult financial climate. Some families who couldn’t afford to take summer vacations reported that they planned “staycations” instead, building family outings around the Free Fun Fridays schedule. Daycare centers, summer camps and senior citizen centers also participated. “We wanted to touch everyone in the community,” McGrath added. “We tried to map out organizations across the state, so no matter where you lived, you could go to something.”

At the May 19 program kickoff at a foundation-funded playground on Boston Commons, Massachusetts Lt. Gov. Timothy P. Murray cited the example of service that the foundation was setting and his hope that others would follow.  “At a time when so many people are struggling financially, the Highland Street Foundation is giving thousands of kids and families the chance to do something that is fun and free.”

Highland Street Foundation, which focuses mainly on the needs of children and families, was established in 1989 by David J. McGrath, jr., the founder and owner of TAD Resources International, the largest privately held staffing company in the world, which was subsequently sold in 1997 to Adecco, the world’s largest temporary help company. With that sale, the foundation received the majority of its endowment which currently stands at approximately $175 million, with a staff of six. David died in 1995. His widow JoAnn and their five children make up the board.

Gradually, the trustees concluded that “being more public would increase awareness for the groups we support by encouraging other funders to follow suit,” McGrath said. The foundation’s website lists its grantees with links to their websites.

A year ago, the foundation hired a new Executive Director, Blake Jordan, who had been director of corporate giving at Citizens Financial Group and director of development for Boston Public Library. His broad networks and experience in charitable giving fit with the trustee’s intention to raise Highland Street Foundation’s profile as a way to leverage their grantmaking.

With the help of a public relations firm, Dewey Square Group, Jordan mounted a statewide awareness campaign about Free Fun Fridays. A TV station, WCVB Channel 5, partnered with the foundation and provided updates every Thursday evening and Friday morning on the next Free Fun Friday attraction. “We could never have afforded to pay for the publicity” that reached 1.5 million viewers each week, Jordan stressed. He also delved into the new world of social marketing by creating a Twitter page and posting on blogs. The impact was immeasurable. A post on a mothers’ blog led to 50 mothers taking their children to the Boston Children’s Museum and meeting each other for the first time.  The success of this effort led the foundation to host a workshop this fall for its grantees on how to maximize their use of social media.

The two anniversary projects far exceeded the foundation’s expectations. “We wanted to spotlight the groups we give to,” McGrath said. “Raising our profile allows us to better leverage our resources.” The many organizations that benefited would agree.