Henry Ford and the Ford Foundation: Have the Right Lessons Been Learned?

Henry Ford and the Ford Foundation: Have the Right Lessons Been Learned?

May 26, 2021 Debi Ghate

For those of us in the philanthropic community, we know the Ford Foundation has become one of the most influential forces within our sector. It’s a true mega-foundation, the second largest in the country, with almost $14 billion in assets and a 100-person staff working on grants around the world.

The Ford Foundation and its founder, Henry Ford, present an interesting case when considering where the money for philanthropy comes from and how it is used. Today’s Ford Foundation describes itself as working “to reduce poverty and injustice, strengthen democratic values, promote international cooperation, and advance human achievement.”

On its website, the foundation explains its approach:

“We believe that social movements are built upon individual leadership, strong institutions, and innovative, often high-risk ideas. While the specifics of what we work on have evolved over the years, investments in these three areas have remained the touchstones of everything we do and are central to our theory of how change happens in the world. These approaches have long distinguished the Ford Foundation, and they have had a profound cumulative impact.”

In recent years, the Ford Foundation is most widely known for its racial and social justice work. It has contributed more than $180 million to these causes and hosted numerous public events to support them. When looking at the latest work on the foundation’s website, one sees topics such as “Reconstructing American News,” “Evaluation of Ford’s racial wealth gap work,” “Evaluating Ford’s youth sexuality, reproductive health and rights work in West Africa,” “Has the time for participatory grant-making come?” and “Funding Futures – Scholarships as Agents of Social Change.”

I was curious: What would the foundation’s original donor and the person who made this mega-foundation possibly think of all this? As I dug through our resource library to answer this question, here are some clues I found:

  • Henry Ford’s thoughts on large philanthropic institutions:

“I have no patience with professional charity or with any sort of commercialized humanitarianism,” Ford wrote in 1923. “The moment human helpfulness is systematized, organized, commercialized, and professionalized, the heart of it is extinguished, and it becomes a cold and clammy thing.”

  • In 1914, Henry Ford gave about $14 million to build the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit. He wanted the institution to reflect his own philosophy of work and self-reliance. So he took an approach of partnering with the patients, who were hard-working people. They would pay for a portion of their care, and he would help with the rest.

Ford said: “There are plenty of hospitals for the rich. There are plenty of hospitals for the poor. There are no hospitals for those who can afford to pay only a moderate amount and yet desire to pay without a feeling that they are recipients of charity.”

  • And regarding a giving strategy:

“In average years, Ford gave away about 33% of his income. By way of comparison, most people in his tax bracket gave away 5%. What Ford himself considered to be the most genuine philanthropy were small gifts to individuals, of which he gave many.”

(source: Henry Ford (philanthropyroundtable.org)

It seems that today, the Ford Foundation’s approach is the polar opposite of what its founder viewed as good philanthropy: a huge institution making very large grants around the world, with a top-down mission and a message of inequity at its center. It’s about as dramatic of an example of “commercialized humanitarianism” as one might find today.

It is a good lesson for any budding philanthropist to ensure one’s approach to philanthropy and donor intent are carefully captured for future generations to apply in the years ahead. Neither Henry Ford nor his son Edsel, who established the Ford Foundation, left behind clear directives on how its wealth should be used beyond “scientific, educational, and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare.”

At the same time, one cannot ignore that Henry Ford was an outright bigot. He published a series of highly anti-Semitic articles in his newspaper, the Dearborn Independent. Every week in the early 1920s, there would be front-page article with the heading “The International Jew: The World’s Problem” that espoused anti-Semitic vitriol about Jewish conspiracies. He blamed Jewish bankers for starting World War I as well as everything from short skirts to modern music. Although some admired his business acumen, Ford’s racism and demonization of others had no place in our world then or now.

In contrast, to the extent that the Ford Foundation of today is committed to fighting racism and tribal thinking, this is an admirable goal. But if it fights only select forms of racial injustice and ignores others such as anti-Semitism, which is still a problem in the United States decades later, the goal becomes far less admirable.

The foundation’s current racial and social justice work complicates this matter further because it carries with it an underlying message of blaming our social problems on those with “privilege,” which often translates to affluent white people. If one took Henry Ford’s prejudice and replaced “Jews” with “those with privilege,” then the message of today’s Ford Foundation would sound very close to that of Ford’s in the 1920s. 

Is today’s Ford Foundation repeating the mistakes of its founder, while forgetting the valuable lessons he shared about effective philanthropy and self-reliance? If we are to move forward together, let’s carry forward the best lessons from the past, while also learning from their errors.