Ford Foundation board making rare Detroit visit

Jennifer Chambers
The Detroit News

Trustees for The Ford Foundation will be hitting the streets of Detroit this week, holding their first board meeting in the Motor City in 67 years as well as greeting local grantees carrying out the foundation's mission.

There are also plans for a "grand bargain" reunion during the three-day visit, a gathering of top leaders in national and local philanthropy who collaborated to create a $816 million, 20-year commitment from foundations, private companies and state taxpayers to shore up Detroit's pensions funds and avert a bankruptcy fire sale of city-owned art.

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said all 16 trustees will be in Detroit on Tuesday for a board meeting in the city. Trustees will also be meeting individually with nonprofit organizations that receive grant money from the foundation.

"We are visiting many of the sites and grantee partners to deepen the board's understanding of the work there and the implications of urban revitalization," Walker said. "There are many lessons in Detroit for America around urban revitalization."

"We see our work in Detroit achieving two objective: making a material difference in lives of Detroiters, but using the opportunity to work in Detroit to inform our work nationally," he said.

More than 220 guests of the foundation are expected at a Tuesday reception at the Wright Museum and dinner afterward at the DIA. They include Mayor Mike Duggan, Gov. Rick Snyder, Kresge Foundation president Rip Rapson, Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibarguen and Mariam Noland, president of the Community Foundation for Southeast Michigan.

On Wednesday, Walker and trustees will dine with Martha Firestone Ford, Detroit Lions owner and widow of Bill Ford Sr., at The Henry Ford. All 16 trustees are expected to attend as well as 39 members of the extended Ford family members.

"We are thrilled," Walker said. "This is an opportunity to celebrate the Ford family's singular legacy of philanthropy in America. There are few families of the great Industrial Age who have done more to transform America than the Ford family."

On Thursday, foundation officials will continue visiting with grantees and are expected to end their trip after lunch, officials said.

At $125 million, the Ford Foundation's commitment to the pension-and-art rescue fund was the largest single contribution of any individual, corporation or institution. The foundation's $10.3 billion endowment fund was seeded 78 years ago with wealth generated by the Ford Motor Co.

Incorporated in 1936 in Michigan, the Ford Foundation was created with an initial gift of $25,000 from Edsel Ford. Edsel's father, Henry, was the automaker's founder.

The foundation operated as a local philanthropy in Michigan until 1950, when it expanded to become a national and international foundation. Today, the foundation is the second-largest in the United States and has provided more than $16 billion in grants and loans worldwide.

But for nearly 30 years, Ford Foundation ties to Michigan were strained. Henry Ford II quit the board in 1977. In his resignation letter, he criticized the foundation, saying that it was supporting projects critical of American business and had forgotten that the fruits of capitalism had provided its financial base.

In addition to the Ford Foundation, the Knight Foundation is holding a summit for its Cities Challenge next week in Detroit and the board for the Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors will also be in town for a meeting.

"There are a lot of exciting things going on in Detroit and it's good time for them to be here and connect," Noland said of the Ford Foundation.