In 1936, Edsel Ford—son of Henry, the founder of the Ford Motor Company—established the Ford Foundation with an initial gift of $25,000. During its early years, the foundation operated in Michigan under the leadership of Ford family members. Since the founding charter stated that resources should be used for “scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare,” the foundation made grants to many kinds of organizations.
After Edsel and Henry died in the mid-1940s, their bequests turned the foundation into the largest philanthropy in the world. Henry Ford II, Edsel’s eldest son, assumed leadership of the foundation, and he and the board of trustees commissioned a blue-ribbon panel, led by H. Rowan Gaither, to explore how the foundation could best put its greatly increased resources to use.
The seven-member Gaither Study Committee recommended that the Ford Foundation become an international philanthropy dedicated to the advancement of human welfare through reducing poverty and promoting democratic values, peace, and educational opportunity. In 1949, the trustees unanimously approved the panel’s ambitious recommendations. Over the next decades, Henry Ford II remained a key figure in the foundation, serving as president and as chair and member of the board of trustees and overseeing its transformation from a local Detroit foundation to a national and international organization. He retired as a trustee in 1976.
In 1953, the trustees decided that to fulfill its expanded mission, the foundation should base its operations in New York. The foundation leased space in the city until 1967, when construction of a headquarters building was completed. That iconic building, designed by Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo and Associates, was later designated a landmark.
Across the decades, the foundation created or helped grow thousands of pathbreaking institutions that became central to social progress, among them Human Rights Watch, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Children’s Television Workshop, National Public Radio, Local Initiatives Support Corporation, the Legal Resources Centre, the Police Foundation, the Native American Rights Fund, the National Organization for Women’s Legal Defense and Education Fund, and Witness.
Through scholarships, fellowships, exchanges, and professional training, the foundation supported individual leaders who made enormous contributions to the quest for justice, including more than 45 who went on to win the Nobel Prize. Margaret Mead, James Baldwin, Kofi Annan, Muhammad Yunus, Gloria Steinem, Condoleezza Rice, Ai-jen Poo, and Bryan Stevenson are just a few of the visionary leaders and institution builders among the thousands we have supported and helped cultivate.
We have been a prominent investor in research and development on breakthrough ideas for social good—from Head Start to Pell Grants, public media to microfinance, area studies to redefined business education, legal aid to community organizing, indigenous land rights to Internet rights. Compelling ideas like these are the lifeblood of social change.
The foundation is an independent organization, led by a distinguished board of trustees whose 16 members hail from four continents and bring leadership and expertise in a wide range of disciplines. Today we are stewards of a $12 billion endowment, making $500 million in grants around the world every year. Led by Darren Walker, our 10th president, we remain committed to our enduring mission—and to our legacy of bold, creative support for social change.