The Ford Foundation was established on Jan. 15, 1936, with an initial gift of $25,000 from Edsel Ford, whose father Henry, founded the Ford Motor Company. During its early years, the foundation operated in Michigan under the leadership of Ford family members. Since the founding charter stated that resources should be used “for scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare,” the foundation made grants to many kinds of organizations.
After the deaths of Edsel Ford in 1943 and Henry Ford in 1947, it became clear that the nonvoting stock of the Ford Motor Company they bequeathed to the Ford Foundation would create the largest philanthropy in the world. In response, the foundation’s board of trustees, led by Henry Ford II, Edsel’s son, commissioned studies to chart the institution’s future.
The seven-member Gaither Study Committee, headed by future Ford Foundation president H. Rowan Gaither, a respected San Francisco lawyer, recommended that the foundation become a national and international philanthropy dedicated to the advancement of human welfare. Perhaps most significant, the panel urged the foundation to focus on solving humankind’s most pressing problems, whatever they might be, rather than work in any particular field, which, at the time, was the traditional and accepted approach taken by foundations.
After thorough review and discussion, the board embraced the report in 1949. A summary published and distributed to the public in 1950 recommended support for activities worldwide that:
- Promise significant contributions to world peace and the establishment of a world order of law and justice
- Secure greater allegiance to the basic principles of freedom and democracy in the solution of the insistent problems of an ever-changing society
- Advance the economic well-being of people everywhere and improve economic institutions for the better realization of democratic goals
- Strengthen, expand and improve educational facilities and methods to enable individuals to realize more fully their intellectual, civic and spiritual potential; to promote greater equality of educational opportunity; and to conserve and increase knowledge and enrich our culture
- Increase knowledge of factors that influence or determine human conduct, and extend such knowledge for the maximum benefit of individuals and society
The report also recommended that the foundation operate under the general guidance of the trustees, with the president and staff officers having a high degree of discretion and the flexibility to respond to unforeseen issues and new opportunities. In 1953, under the direction of Henry Ford II, the trustees took a further step to fulfill the foundation’s new national and global mission by deciding to base the foundation in New York.
The foundation leased space in the city until 1967, when construction of a headquarters building was completed. Diversification of the foundation’s portfolio was discussed as early as 1949, and divestment of the Ford Motor Company stock took place between 1955 and 1974.
Henry Ford II was a key figure in the foundation from 1943 to 1976. Serving variously as president, chairman and member of the board of trustees, he oversaw its transformation from a local Detroit foundation to a national and international organization. He sought in nearly every major decision to create an institution of the highest order to pursue innovative solutions to the problems of humankind.
Today, the Ford Foundation, led by Luis Ubiñas, our ninth president, remains committed to advancing human welfare. Headquartered in New York City, we make grants in all 50 states and, through 10 regional offices around the world, support programs in more than 50 countries. Over the years, our trustees have been drawn from the United States, Latin America, Africa and Asia and have brought experience in business, government, higher education, law, nonprofit management and the civic sector with a diversity of approaches and continuity of purpose.
Reflecting our charter and the Gaither Study Committee report, our programs continue to serve the public welfare by strengthening democratic values, reducing poverty and injustice, promoting international cooperation and advancing human achievement.