February 21, 2019; Crain’s Detroit
It has been more than 40 years since a member of the Ford family was a member of the Ford Foundation’s board, so the election of Henry Ford III, 38, great-grandson of Edsel Ford, is a notable moment that many believe signals a renewed interest in Michigan and Detroit. Edsel Ford established the foundation in 1936. The last Ford to sit on the foundation board of trustees was his grandfather, Henry Ford II, who completed his 33 years of board service in 1976.
The Ford Foundation, based in New York, has assets of $14 billion. For eight decades, their mission has been “to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.”
Darren Walker, the current president of the Ford Foundation, has been working towards transforming philanthropy. “We must trust those we fund,” he says, “and fund them adequately to do what they believe is best, not what we think is best.” Under his leadership, the foundation has increased its investments in Southeast Michigan with the Grand Bargain, committing $125 million in 2014, at $12.5 million a year. The funding helped to build back the Detroit pension funds, assisting the city to pull out of bankruptcy, and safeguarding the Detroit Institute of Arts collection. The foundation provides additional grants totaling $30 million focused on metro Detroit annually. Naming Henry Ford III to the board reinforces the foundation’s pledge to Detroit and the state of Michigan.
Henry Ford II molded the foundation during his 33-year tenure, making it independent with board members outside of the family, and developed a global mission highlighted by moving the headquarters to New York City 66 years ago. Although the foundation’s headquarters moved to New York in the ’50s, under the pressure of a city in distress, the Michigan attorney general in 2006, Mike Cox, had initiated an investigation of the foundation, alleging that it had left the original donor intent behind and had reduced its commitment to Michigan. However, the Ford Foundation was investing dollars in Detroit for development starting in 2005, and in 2007, it committed $25 million as the seed money for the New Economy Initiative, an economic development project with a $100 million goal from foundations.
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The foundation held a meeting in Detroit in 2015, the first one since 1948, and opened an office in the city two years later. That office is managed by Kevin Ryan, who is a native of Detroit. It supports affordable housing, school system restructuring, and organizations based in the city’s neighborhoods.
The younger Ford is the manager of corporate strategy at Ford Motor Co. He has taught math and history in middle school and high school. He serves on advisory boards for such groups as Dearborn’s Henry Ford College and The Edison Institute (dba The Henry Ford), and he helped start a nonprofit that works with community organizations to increase availability of early child care, Neighborhood Villages.
“Henry has been an advocate for these efforts, and I am delighted he will bring his dedication to social justice to his board service,” Walker said in a news release. “Although we were established to be an independent institution, our recent efforts in southeastern Michigan have marked a reconnection with the Ford family, coming full circle with Henry’s election to our board.”
Ford is honored to be a part of the foundation begun by his family eight decades ago. “The foundation’s commitment to ending inequality and building a fair and inclusive economy is more critical today than ever before, and it is impossible to overstate its role in reinvigorating the city of Detroit,” Ford said.—Marian Conway