Since Henry Ford II’s resignation from the Board of the Foundation his grandfather created, the trustees and staff of the Ford Foundation have been widely held up as the ultimate example of every foundation founder’s legitimate concern – the hijacking of donor intent.
By the time Henry Ford II resigned, the direction of the foundation was antithetical to the values and practices of his grandfather. The Ford Foundation was virtually synonymous with the funding and support of liberal causes around the world.
In his letter of resignation to the Board in 1976 Ford wrote, “In effect, the foundation is a creature of capitalism, a statement that, I’m sure, would be shocking to many professional staff people in the field of philanthropy. It is hard to discern recognition of this fact in anything the foundation does. It is even more difficult to find an understanding of this in many of the institutions, particularly the universities that are the beneficiaries of the foundation’s grant programs. I’m not playing the role of the hard-headed tycoon who thinks all ‘philanthropoids’ are Socialists and all university professors are Communists. I’m just suggesting to the trustees and the staff that the system that makes the foundation possible very probably is worth preserving.”
Of course, by then it was pretty much an empty gesture as the Ford family had long ago lost the leadership of the foundation. Like many of us, I have recounted these words and the history of the Ford Foundation in conversations and meetings about the inherent dangers of professionals and trustees changing the course of the founder’s intent. How many times have we heard, “He would be rolling over in his grave if he knew what they were doing with the foundation.”?
However, a friend, Curtis Meadows, challenged me to read the original charter of the foundation and then explain to him how the trustees had wandered from the intent.
I called the Ford Foundation and they sent me a copy of the original charter. There is nothing in Henry Ford’s instructions that would give his successors any indication of what his intent was for the foundation except to “receive and administer funds for the scientific, educational, and charitable purpose, all for the public welfare, and for no other purpose…”
Essentially, you could drive a train through the gaps in that instruction.
Waldemar Nielsen in his classic on donor intent reported, “After the most comprehensive combing of the family and company papers, these people from the law firm of Cravath, Swaine & Moore were unable to find a single sentence or a single note from old Henry (Ford) expressing any interest in, or ideas about, his philanthropy.”
In other words, there was probably donor assumption but no stated donor intent. Henry Ford either had no interest in what they did, or he simply assumed his family and trustees would do what he would do. They didn’t, and more than likely, neither will yours if you are making assumptions instead of clearly expressing your intentions in writing.
But not only is written donor intent important. Henry Ford II’s involvement with the foundation illustrates something even more important. He did not share his grandfather’s values and fundamental ethic that would have kept the foundation on course had he done so.
Early on, as William Rusher writes in an excellent piece, “Keeping Faith: Donor Intent in the 21st Century,” he abdicated his responsibilities by announcing he would assume the role and title of Chairman, but the Ford family would not be interested in controlling the Foundation and that “their influence would be no greater that that of any other members of the board.”
The family was not prepared by anyone to carry on the values of the founder and that, from our perspective as Christian givers, is the greater tragedy. No one in the family was interested in the responsibility of actively promoting the values until it was far too late.
So, what is the application for you? Henry Ford’s foundation didn’t reverse course in the second or third generation. It virtually never had a course, so it was easy prey for the “philanthropoids.” Still, it was just as much his and his family’s shirking their responsibility that sealed the fate of the foundation.
Do you have a written document that communicates your intent and not just your assumptions? Who in your family shares your values and will be prepared to be both responsible to “keep the faith” of the foundation and to prepare the next generation? It’s important to think about and to do right now.