Howes: Ford Foundation homecoming renewing family ties

Daniel Howes
The Detroit News

The New York-based Ford Foundation's decision to hold its first board meeting in Detroit since 1948 is a rapprochement long in the making.

In the wake of a $125 million commitment to the Detroit bankruptcy's "grand bargain," CEO Darren Walker is moving to reconnect the foundation and its $12.3 billion in assets to the city of its founding, and school his trustees on the challenges and opportunities here. He's also rebuilding ties with the family whose legacy has financed the foundation's causes around the world.

Henry Ford II attends a Ford Foundation board meeting in 1968. He resigned in 1976 in “frustration” and “plain irritation” at the group’s attitude toward free enterprise and the source of the foundation’s wealth. The foundation had been chartered by his grandfather Henry and his father Edsel Ford in 1936.

"This is a historic moment for the Ford Foundation and the Ford family," Walker said in an interview Wednesday. In 2015, nearly 40 years after Henry Ford II severed family ties to the foundation, "the moment has come for the Ford Foundation and the family to come together to celebrate its commitment. This is the moment to pay homage to the philanthropy of the Ford family, beginning with Henry and Edsel."

Henry and Edsel Ford in 1936.

This is unequivocally good news in a town only recently getting a big taste of it. The foundation's meetings here on June 17-18, including sessions with business, cultural and community leaders, will be capped by a dinner at the Henry Ford hosted by Detroit Lions owner Martha Ford, widow of Bill Ford Sr. — a powerful symbol that the decades-long estrangement between the family and the foundation founded by its forbearers is over.

Henry Ford II was the last Ford family member to sit on the foundation board. He resigned in 1976, detailing his "frustration" and "plain irritation" in a letter to then-Chairman Alexander Heard. Ford alleged too many foundation staffers failed to appreciate that the largesse they could distribute was "the fruits of our economic system," proving "the foundation is a creature of capitalism."

The family's nearly 40-year absence from the foundation that bears its name is unlikely to change anytime soon. That's recognition, among other things, of rivalries within family and the historical fact that the extended family's power is traditionally vested in a single, often very busy, person, beginning with old Henry and leading to Bill Ford Jr., executive chairman of Ford Motor Co. and vice chairman of the Lions.

"There is no discussion at this time to have a Ford family member join the board of the Ford Foundation," Walker said, anticipating the question before it had been asked. Sources close to the family confirm that assessment, emphasizing that the goals of the family and the foundation under Walker are more aligned today, insofar as Detroit is concerned, than anytime in roughly 60 years.

"The Ford Foundation was founded originally to support southeast Michigan and all the institutions here," Bill Ford told WDIV's Devin Scillian in a special edition of "FlashPoint" from the Mackinac Policy Conference last week. "Really they are coming home, and I'm thrilled that they are. We should have a good relationship. The break that happened many, many years ago; most people forgot why it ever happened."

Darren Walker The Ford Foundation

It doesn't really matter anymore — the leftward tilt of the foundation's grant-making in the Vietnam era, the emphasis on causes in the developing world at the expense of worsening urban decay and dysfunction in places like Detroit. What matters now, on the backside of the city's epic bankruptcy and the foundation's critical role in the "grand bargain," is whether the commitment will endure.

Walker insists it will. Over the past eight years, the foundation awarded grants here totaling between $12 million and $15 million annually; the pace is expected to continue despite its pledge to the "grand bargain," the largest single grant by the foundation to a U.S. program since the 1960s. That, by itself, is reason enough for the foundation's trustees to deep dive Detroit.

Over two days, the board's 16 trustees will tour the city. They are scheduled to meet with Mayor Mike Duggan, Gov. Rick Snyder, Quicken Loans Inc. Chairman Dan Gilbert and leaders of what Walker termed "grassroots" community groups. They also will visit the Charles H. Wright Museum and the Detroit Institute of Arts — the beneficiary of a public-private partnership that likely would not have happened without Walker and Ford, the Kresge Foundation and CEO Rip Rapson, and the team of federal mediators led by Chief U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen.

In an email, Rosen called the return of the foundation trustees to Detroit after a 67-year hiatus "the latest affirmation of Ford's sustained commitment to the future of Detroit and its people. The healing and re-birth of the relationship between the Ford Foundation and Detroit ranks among the most rewarding for all of us who were involved in the bankruptcy."

Bill Ford Jr. says he’s happy that the Ford Foundation is “coming home” for its meeting. “The break that happened many, many years ago; most people forgot why it ever happened.”

But it didn't come without the recent leadership of Walker, who helped craft the "grand bargain" even while methodically rebuilding ties with family members. Nor would the re-engagement likely be occurring without an unambiguous nudge in 2006 from a former attorney general of Michigan. He threatened the Michigan-incorporated foundation with legal action and a whole lot of public embarrassment if it didn't start to open wider its prodigious pockets to its hometown. He succeeded.

Nine years ago, Attorney General Mike Cox confirmed to The Detroit News that his office was investigating the foundation using administrative subpoenas and the state's charitable trust laws to determine whether the foundation — which has no legal ties to Ford Motor, despite both being founded by patriarch Henry Ford — was remaining true to its Michigan roots. A year later, the foundation pledged $25 million to support a new economic development initiative created by the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

"It's great they're moving in this direction," Cox, now leader of his own Livonia-based law firm, said in an interview. "They're nowhere near what old Henry and Edsel did with the same corpus. They could remake an American city. They could make Detroit for best practices in philanthropy."

Still, the foundation's 2007 move to help underwrite what became the New Economy Initiative marked the beginning of a nearly decade-long homecoming, culminating in Henry and Edsel Ford's charitable trust leading the effort to fund the "grand bargain." The linchpin of Detroit's historic bankruptcy, totaling $816 million with contributions from the state Legislature and DIA donors, rescued the museum's collection from possible liquidation and bolstered pension payouts to city retirees.

Without the foundation chartered by Henry and Edsel Ford on Jan. 15, 1936, it's likely the outcome of Detroit's epic bankruptcy could have been dramatically worse — and Detroit would be the poorer for it.


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Daniel Howes' column runs Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and can be found at http://detroitnews.com/staff/27151.