Ford Motor Co.'s philanthropic arm will get a new leader in the new year.

Jim Vella, president of the Ford Fund and Community Services, will retire Dec. 31 after more than 13 years running the automaker's global charitable organization. The automaker said Wednesday that Mary Culler, currently chief of staff to Executive Chairman Bill Ford and development director for the Blue Oval's forthcoming Corktown campus, will replace him.

Vella, 63, hopes Culler continues to drive the fund that sets Ford apart from the other Detroit automakers in recent years, especially since the 2009 bankruptcies of General Motors Corp. and the former Chrysler Group. The Ford Fund spends $53 million — roughly $20 million in southeast Michigan — annually across more than 60 countries to support education, safe driving and other community services to boost the communities in which Ford operates.

"We were the only company that continued to give back to the community," Vella said, reflecting on the after-shocks of the Great Recession on Ford's crosstown rivals. "When I started, we were not doing the global stuff." 

The Ford Fund has five Ford Resource and Engagement centers — two in the U.S., one in South Africa, one in Romania and another in Bangkok — that it uses to shape how Ford resources should be deployed to meet the greatest need. The centers keep Ford from simply writing checks to different organizations, instead spurring those at the Ford Fund to partner with multiple nonprofits to work in those communities.

That's especially true in Vella's native southwest Detroit, where the Ford Fund opened one of the first resource centers. That community also nestles up to what would be one of Ford's largest-ever community revitalization projects: the Corktown campus, anchored by a Michigan Central Depot now under renovation. 

Ford envisions a sprawling Detroit campus open to the public, even as it is devoted to Ford's development of next-generation technology in mobility, autonomy and electrification. Culler's work overseeing the formative stages of that development is expected to dovetail with her new role leading the Ford Fund.

"I hope we continue to build on the strong legacy and foundation," Vella said. "We want to continue that legacy of not only writing checks, but also of helping to come up with solutions to the social issues that have plagued our community for years and years and years. We can be, because of who we are, a change agent."

Meantime, Vella may be retiring from Ford after a 31-year career, but he aims to put his experience to use. He plans to start the Vella Strategic Philanthropy Group, which would serve to counsel nonprofits, philanthropies and corporations on how to do more than write checks to benefit communities.

“Whether it was a plant crisis or internal issue, Jim has been a trusted partner and advisor through an extraordinary era at Ford,” Bill Ford said in a statement. “His devotion to helping others and commitment to expanding Ford’s role in the community have made us a leader in corporate philanthropy around the world.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

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