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The Ford Foundation Business Information, Profile, and History

320 East 43rd Street
New York, New York 10017

Company Perspectives:

The Ford Foundation is a resource for innovative people and institutions worldwide. Our goals are to: strengthen democratic values; reduce poverty and injustice; promote international cooperation; advance human achievement. This has been our purpose for almost half a century.

History of The Ford Foundation

Created in 1936 with gifts from Henry and Edsel Ford, The Ford Foundation is one of the top four philanthropic organizations in the United States, and has awarded nearly $10 billion in grants and loans to groups and individuals around the world 'to create political, economic, and social systems that promote peace, human welfare, and the sustainability of the environment on which life depends.' With a diversified portfolio and assets worth over $11 billion, The New York City-based foundation has offices in Beijing; Bangkok; Cairo; Hanoi, Vietnam; Jakarta, Indonesia; Johannesburg; Lagos, Nigeria; Manila; Mexico City; Nairobi, Kenya; New Delhi; Rio de Janeiro; Moscow; Santiago, Chile; and Windhoek, Namibia.

The Ford Family: 1936-79

American philanthropy dates back to at least 1638, when John Harvard bequeathed his library and half of his estate to the newly founded Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. He was followed by such people as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Bond, who donated gifts in 1751 to create Pennsylvania Hospital, the first general hospital in America; American admirer James Smithson, a Brit, who donated gifts to the United States in 1846, creating The Smithsonian Institution and its numerous libraries and museums; Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, who donated money in the 1910s and 1920s for foundations that, in turn, funded colleges, libraries, and projects which bear their names.

Automaker Henry Ford was not to be left behind. While he did not believe in giving charity, Ford did believe in helping people help themselves. He already was paying better-than-average wages to his employees and was hiring blacks and disabled workers at a time when few others would. In 1936, the businessman gave his son Edsel $25,000 in cash to establish The Ford Foundation as an independent, nonprofit, non-governmental organization. The following year, Henry donated to the foundation 250,000 shares of nonvoting stock in The Ford Motor Company, beginning nearly 70 years of funding for worthwhile projects.

For roughly the first 15 years, the foundation focused its efforts mainly in the State of Michigan, operating as a local-area philanthropic group. Some of its early projects included The Henry Ford Hospital and The Ford Museum in Dearborn. When Edsel died in 1943, followed by Henry in 1947, the foundation suddenly was the owner of 90 percent of the auto company's nonvoting stock, making the total endowment of the group approximately $474 million, the largest in the country at the time. The Ford family stayed involved in the foundation until 1979, when grandson Henry Ford II stepped down from the board of directors.

New Directions and Expansion: Hoffman and Gaither: 1950s-60s

In 1951, The Foundation brought in Paul Gray Hoffman (former Studebaker Corporation executive as well as administrator of The Economic Cooperation Administration) as president, and Robert Maynard Hutchins (former Yale Law School dean, as well as president and chancellor of The University of Chicago) as associate director. Under their direction, the foundation made broad commitments to the promotion of world peace, the strengthening of democracy, and the improvement of education. Also that year, the foundation provided funding to create The Radio and Television workshop, an early indication of the organization's enduring support of public television. Some of the early education program grants from the foundation, overseen by Hutchins and totaling some $100 million between 1951-53, assisted in establishing significant programs throughout the world, such as the Harvard Center for International Legal Studies and the National Merit Scholarships.

One of the foundation's early creations was the fund for the Republic. The idea for the fund germinated in 1950, when the foundation recognized that pressures from the political and cultural right threatened to restrict basic freedoms. In an effort to 'support activities directed toward the elimination of restrictions on freedom of thought, inquiry and expression in the United States, and the development of policies and procedures best adapted to protect these rights,' the foundation created the fund. In October 1951, the foundation donated $1 million to open offices, gather a board of directors, and hire attorneys to establish it as a legal organization, which was incorporated in the State of New York on December 9, 1952, as a nonprofit membership corporation. David Freeman was loaned to the fund as temporary president and secretary until 1953, when Hoffman stepped down from the Ford Foundation and became the fund's chairman (where he served briefly before becoming chairman of the board at The Studebaker-Packard Corporation) and New Jersey congressman Clifford Case, the fund's president. The latter was followed by Hutchins, who left the foundation and served at the fund from 1954 until his death in 1977, additionally founding The Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara, California, in 1959. He died in 1977, and two years later, the fund was absorbed into the University of California, Santa Barbara.

After Hoffman stepped down from the Ford Foundation's helm, prominent San Francisco lawyer H. Rowan Gaither, Jr., took over as president, and later chairman. During his tenure in the 1950s, the Ford, Rockefeller, and Carnegie Foundations came under intense scrutiny by Communist-hunter Senator Paul McCarthy, and took heavy criticism for their funding projects. To counter McCarthy's allegations, the foundation, in 1956, sold 22 percent of its Ford shares on the public market and awarded $550 million of the proceeds to 'noncontroversial' recipients such as 600 liberal arts colleges, 3,500 nonprofit hospitals, and 44 private medical schools. Gaither would go on to become a public figure during the Cold War, chairing a committee of leading scientific, business, and military experts--called the Gaither Committee--that prepared a top-secret report for President Eisenhower which, according to David Snead's book, the Gaither Committee, Eisenhower, and The Cold War, 'emphasized the inadequacy of U.S. defense measures designed to protect the civilian population and the vulnerability of the country's strategic nuclear forces in the event of a Soviet attack.'

During the 1950s, international work began in Asia and the Middle East (1950) and extended to Africa (1958) and Latin America (1959). Most of these projects were focused on education and rural development. The foundation also supported the Population Council and research in high-yield agriculture with the Rockefeller Foundation.

After the Cold War: Bundy, 1960s-70s

In the early 1960s, the foundation targeted innovative approaches to employment and race relations. McGeorge Bundy (formerly the youngest dean of faculty, 1953-61, at Harvard and special assistant for national security, 1961-66, to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson), became president in 1966, and increased the activist trend with grants for direct voter registration, the NAACP, the Urban League, public-interest law centers, and housing for the poor. Under Bundy's direction in the 1970s, the Ford Foundation supported black colleges and scholarships, child care, and job training for women but, by 1974, inflation, weak stock prices, and overspending had eroded the foundation's assets. Programs were cut, but continued support for social justice issues led Henry Ford II to quit the board in 1976, and Bundy stepped down in 1979.

Worldwide Reach: From 1979 Forward

Lawyer Franklin Thomas, who replaced Bundy in 1979, becoming the first black to lead the Ford Foundation. Under his direction, the foundation established the nation's largest community development support organization, called Local Initiatives Support. Additionally, he more than tripled the foundation's endowments, from $2 billion to $7.7 billion. In the mid-1980s, Thomas was responsible for setting up the first-ever meeting between the African National Congress (ANC) and the South African government, while Nelson Mandela was still imprisoned and the ANC leaders were in exile.

Thomas retired from the foundation in 1996, and Executive Vice-President Susan V. Berresford filled the top spot, becoming the first woman at the helm. After graduating from Vassar College in 1965, Berresford worked briefly for the Neighborhood Youth Corps and the Manpower Development Agency before joining the Ford Foundation in 1970 as a researcher, moving through the ranks to become project assistant for national affairs, officer in charge of women's programs, and vice-president for U.S. and international affairs. She also served on the boards of the Council of Foundations and Chase Manhattan Bank. Trying to get a better focus on the foundation's projects, Berresford consolidated the foundation's grant programs into its three main areas: asset building and community development (which included subcategories such as agricultural productivity, community revitalization, international economics and development, land and water management, and welfare and teen pregnancy); peace and social justice (which included subcategories such as access to social justice/legal services, civic participation, international human rights law, philanthropy, refugees and migrants rights, and U.S. foreign policy); and education, media, arts, and culture (including cultural preservation, vitality, and interpretation; education, knowledge, and religion; media, arts, and culture; and teaching and scholarship). Despite criticism from both the right and the left, in 1997 the foundation announced its largest project ever, the allocation of $50 million to focus on increasing international grants and programs to help people help themselves.

By 1997, drugmaker Eli Lilly donated $12.7 billion to the Lilly Endowment, pushing Ford, then with $9.4 billion, to the number two spot, for the first time in 30 years. The following year, Ford dropped to number four, behind the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, and the newly created Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

By 2000, the Ford Foundation had awarded nearly $10 billion in loans and grants worldwide, and its diversified portfolio was managed to provide a perpetual source of support for the foundation's programs and operations through the 21st century.

Principal Divisions: Asset Building and Community Development; Peace and Social Justice; Education, Media, Arts, and Culture.

Principal Competitors: The Carnegie Corporation of New York; The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation; The Rockefeller Foundation; The Lilly Endowment; The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; The W.K. Kellogg Foundation; The J. Paul Getty Trust; The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation; The Pew Charitable Trusts; The Robert W. Woodruff Foundation; The Anneberg Foundation; The David and Lucile Packard Foundation.


  • Key Dates:

  • 1936: Ford Foundation is established by Henry and Edsel Ford.
  • 1943: Edsel Ford dies.
  • 1947: Henry Ford dies; Ford Foundation holds 90 percent of Ford stock
  • 1950s:International funding begins.
  • 1979: Franklin Thomas becomes the first African American to head the Foundation.
  • 1996: Susan V. Berresford becomes the first woman to head the Foundation.

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