The Rockefeller Archive Center
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—John D. Rockefeller, Sr.

Ford Foundation: Themes, 1936-2001

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Bibliography of New Scholarship on the Ford Foundation, 2012-2015

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The Ford Foundation was a hometown enterprise for the first fifteen years after its founding in Detroit in 1936. By 1950, thanks to almost unimaginably vast assets and an equally vast ambition—to achieve world peace—it had skyrocketed to global prominence. Throughout its history, especially after 1950, the Foundation has blended an underlying continuity of purpose with flexibility in response to changing world problems. Ford’s simply stated mission, to “advance human welfare,” has motivated programs as distinct from each other as international security and cultural expression. At times, the Foundation’s capacity to make enormous grants enabled it to make a significant impact, as in the case of its education and agriculture work. At other times, the Foundation’s strength lay in its creativity— its ability to develop new tools such as program-related investments and micro-lending programs. In endeavors of any size, the Foundation has tended to display a brash confidence and a willingness to take risks, especially in its support for ethnic diversity and civil rights and its insistence on gender parity both within its own ranks and in the areas of society it has touched.

The Foundation’s confidence did not come without certain dangers. The Foundation’s support for civil liberties—as well as the outspoken personalities of its leadership—at times drew fire from Ford automobile dealers, the public, members of Congress, and even the chairman of its own Board. Particularly challenging moments in Ford’s history included a failed attempt at school decentralization in New York City in 1967, the restrictive 1969 Tax Reform Act, the decline of its financial assets in the early 1970s, and the Ford family’s departure from the Board in December 1976. Facing these and other moments, Ford’s trustees and staff regularly reevaluated grantmaking activities and shifted course according to changing needs, challenges, and opportunities.

This narrative sketches the broad strokes of those shifts in the Ford Foundation’s history, identifying the main inflection points in its evolution from 1936 to 2001. While the chapter tells the stories of some of the Foundation's most significant successes and failures, it is by no means comprehensive. The narrative focus is on the illustrative, often pivotal, leadership decisions made in response to external forces, such as geopolitical events and financial challenges. While the topics range widely, what this research makes clear is that the Foundation’s strategic directions, organizational infrastructure, and grantmaking choices have been determined by the interplay of presidential convictions, Board of Trustees directives, staff initiative, and changing socio-political contexts. Other themes might arguably be traced over time, and different dividing lines could be chosen to periodize Ford Foundation history. There are certainly more stories of specific programs than could ever be told in a single report. But the leadership of presidents and trustees has been exceptionally and explicitly formative to this foundation, and it provides an essential framework for understanding the Foundation’s evolution, the dynamics of its institutional personality, and its fields of activity.


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