Letter to the Editor, Wall Street Journal, March 26, 2012
We applaud Adam Meyerson’s effort to ensure that donors take action to safeguard their philanthropic principles (“When Philanthropy Goes Wrong,” op-ed, March 10). But his advice is diminished by assertions about the Ford Foundation that are simply untrue.
The Ford Foundation was founded by Edsel Ford, not his father Henry. Edsel gave the foundation a broad charter “to administer funds for scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare.”
As president and chairman in the late 1940s, Henry Ford II, Edsel’s son, commissioned a blue-ribbon panel to explore how the foundation could best use its resources to fulfill its charter. The goals he and his fellow trustees embraced cleave tightly to his father’s vision of helping humanity overcome its most enduring problems. These same goals remain at the heart of the foundation’s work today.
Whether in funding the fight against apartheid, the green revolution, the civil rights movement or the creation of Sesame Street, the Ford Foundation has helped hundreds of millions of people around the world live freer, better, more prosperous lives. Edsel Ford and his father would take great pride in having made that possible.
As for Henry II, he set us on this course and staunchly defended the institution against attacks from the left and the right. In the thoughtful and constructive resignation letter that Mr. Meyerson quotes only part of, Mr. Ford concludes, “The Foundation already has a magnificent record of achievement. I’m confident that it is capable of still more significant contributions to the world in the years to come . . . The future of the foundation is in capable hands.”
—Marta L. Tellado, Ford Foundation, New York
Adam Meyerson’s reply:
Marta Tellado’s letter confirms the wisdom of our recommendation that donors clearly define the charitable mission of their foundations. When Henry Ford and his son Edsel established the Ford Foundation (Henry Ford II referred to his grandfather and father as its two founders), they left future trustees with no instructions on its purposes. The language in the charter, “to administer funds for scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare,” offered no guidance about principles or priorities and would be consistent with a very broad range of philanthropic strategies.
The Ford family could have shaped the philosophical and philanthropic direction of the Ford Foundation but voluntarily abdicated this role. Henry Ford II was chairman of the Ford Foundation during its first decade as the foundation made its ideological transformation to the left, and he and his brother initially controlled a majority of the Ford Foundation board. His priority, however, was his 34-year chairmanship of the Ford Motor Company; his attention to the foundation was more limited and sporadic.
Henry Ford II was clearly dismayed with the direction of the Ford Foundation when he submitted his resignation letter. The New York Times published eight paragraphs of his criticism of the foundation, and Ford’s comments deeply troubled a generation of philanthropists. “Perhaps it is time,” Ford concluded as he stepped away from the foundation his family built, “for the trustees and staff to examine the question of our obligations to our economic system and to consider how the Foundation, as one of the system’s most prominent offspring, might act most wisely to strengthen and improve its progenitor.”
Shortly after Ford’s resignation he gave a lengthy interview to the New York Times Magazine (published March 12, 1978). “They [the Ford Foundation] were doing a lot of things they shouldn’t be doing,” he stated. “As I talked with Henry recently about the foundation in his Dearborn office,” summarized journalist Lally Weymouth, “he re-emphasized his desire to see the foundation do more to support ‘the economic system that really made this country.’”
Paradoxically, at about the same time, the Ford Foundation was helping to launch the Grameen Bank, headed by Muhammad Yunus, which offered micro-credit loans to entrepreneurs in rural Bangladesh. Ford’s support for Grameen helped to pioneer the micro-finance industry which rapidly spread throughout the developing world and is premised on the idea that business ownership and financial capital open opportunity for the poor.
Our point in reviewing this history is to give guidance to donors who want to safeguard their charitable intentions. Unlike Henry and Edsel Ford, they should define their charitable mission. They should choose trustees and staff who share their deepest principles. They should avoid mixing philanthropic objectives with the goal of maintaining control of their business, as occurred with the Ford Foundation. They should consider giving while living or sunsetting their foundations. And if they create a foundation in perpetuity, they should establish, unlike Henry and Edsel Ford, procedures that make it more likely future generations of trustees will adhere to their founding principles.
To see Henry Ford II’s letter of resignation from the Ford Foundation board, as published in Foundation News, March/April 1977, click here.