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FOUNDATIONS: Another Ford Farewell

3 minute read

In its 41 years the Ford Foundation has been the target of much harsh criticism—often from Congressmen or conservatives who consider some of its projects to be either leftish or dumb or both. Last week an attack came from an unexpected quarter: a fellow named Ford. Announcing he was quitting as a trustee after 33 years, Henry Ford II wrote Board Chairman Alexander Heard that while he took “pride in the foundation, it has also been a cause of frustration and sometimes plain irritation.”

Ford complained that the public had a “blurred” idea of the foundation since it was involved in such a “diffuse array of enterprises.”

Above all, Ford was troubled by the foundation’s lack of commitment to the free-enterprise system. “The foundation is a creature of capitalism—a statement that I’m sure would be shocking to many professional staff people in the field of philanthropy. It is hard to discern recognition of this fact in anything the foundation does. I’m not playing the role of the hardheaded tycoon who thinks all philanthropists are socialists and all university professors are Communists. I’m just suggesting to the trustees and the staff that the system that makes the foundation possible is very probably worth preserving.”

Ford’s barbed goodbye was treated as a farewell address rather than a diatribe by America’s largest foundation (assets $2.3 billion). Said a foundation official: “The bottom line is that he’s proud of the whole thing, but he’s given some farewell words where he’s saying, ‘Watch out for this, that and the other thing.’ ”

Cutting Edge. Run independently of the Ford family for more than a decade, the foundation is even more autonomous now that it has sold much of the company stock and diversified its holdings. Heard claimed that Ford had expressed no specific opposition to any recent foundation programs. Perhaps, Heard speculated, he was reacting to complaints from conservative-minded Ford dealers. Said Fred Friendly, communications adviser to the foundation: “If Henry was really disillusioned about the direction the foundation funding has taken, he would stay.”

Still, the foundation has always considered itself on the cutting edge of change, and last year distributed some $137 million in ways that are not especially comforting to U.S. business. It funds civil rights, environmental, women’s liberation and public interest groups. While undeniably experimental, its programs have not been uniformly successful—at least not in the eyes of its critics. Its funding of the community-controlled schools in the Ocean Hill-Brownsville section of Brooklyn in 1968 contributed to the racial upheaval in New York. Even the foundation had to concede that a ten-year, $30 million program to “reform” American education had fallen dismally short of its goals.

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