First Ford since 1976 named to Ford Foundation board

Neal Rubin
The Detroit News
Henry Ford III, son of Edsel II and Cynthia Ford and grandson of Henry II, will join the board of the Ford Foundation.

A dinner at the Henry Ford Museum in 2015 set the course for a significant step Monday: the election of Henry Ford III to the Ford Foundation's board of trustees.

At a time when the $13 billion foundation is placing a particular focus on Southeast Michigan, Ford III becomes the first family member on the board since his grandfather, Henry Ford II, testily resigned in 1976.

The selection after several rounds of vetting "just feels right," said Ford III, 38, who works in corporate strategy at Ford Motor Co. "It's a good thing to have a family member associated with the board."

Ford Foundation President Darren Walker said meeting Ford III is one of his enduring memories of the sit-down dinner put on by Detroit Lions owner Martha Firestone Ford for trustees and about 40 family members from around the country, commemorating the "grand bargain" involving philanthropic and state aid that helped Detroit emerge from bankruptcy.

What had the most impact, Walker conceded, was the Rosa Parks bus. But beyond that, Ford III "immediately struck me as very thoughtful, very genuine, very interested in our social justice issues."

"He impressed me that night with his knowledge of the history of the civil rights movement, for example," Walker said. "He is committed to improving conditions in the world for those who are disadvantaged."

Ford III, known as Sonny, is the son of Edsel II and Cynthia Ford, the great-grandson of Edsel and the great-great-grandson of the automaker's founder.

Edsel began the foundation in 1936. Located in New York for the past 66 years, and bolstered by the estates of him and Henry II, it has a global reach and emphases that include human rights, economic empowerment and environmental impact.

It distributes more than $600 million annually, and its money has been used for projects as varied as fighting AIDS, combating apartheid and helping to launch TV's "Sesame Street."

The newest of its 16 trustees graduated from Dartmouth College, worked for a teacher recruitment firm and then taught math and history in Virginia for several years before joining Ford in the labor relations department in 2006.

While earning an MBA from MIT, he spent a month one summer at a Ford dealership in North Hills, California — amid the housing implosion and the federal cash-for-clunkers program. He sold five Fords and a Volvo, and impressed dealership vice president Beau Boeckmann.

"Every area we put him in, everyone wanted to keep him," Boeckmann told Automotive News in 2014. "Every area he touched, people fell in love with him. He is incredibly bright. He is driven, but not in an aggressive way."

Ford III sits on the boards of multiple schools and organizations, including Henry Ford College in Dearborn and Neighborhood Villages in Detroit, which he helped start. It partners with community organizations to improve access to early child care.

With his wife also a former teacher, Ford III said, he is particularly passionate about early childhood education.

Education has also been a focus for the Ford Foundation in Metro Detroit, where it donates more than $30 million per year, including $12.5 million as part of its $125 million contribution to the "grand bargain." Since mid-2017, it has based a program officer, Kevin Ryan, in Detroit — its first official presence in the city since 1953.

The foundation, whose inattention to the city had helped alienate Ford II, has recently supported nonprofits active in neighborhood revitalization, inclusion and community engagement.

What comes next, Walker said, is "our renewed commitment to continue significant investment in Southeast Michigan," particularly in the arts, workforce development and enhancing citizen participation.

"The work we have done in Detroit since the grand bargain has been some of the most gratifying and successful work we've done anywhere in the world," Walker said. "There's no place where we feel more hopeful about the future."

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