On this day in 1956, Henry Ford II, the namesake and grandson of the legendary automobile pioneer, resigns as chairman of his family’s charitable organization, the Ford Foundation.
Henry II’s father, Edsel Ford, created the Ford Foundation in 1936 as a legal way for the family to escape the so-called “soak the rich” taxes imposed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration on estates worth more than $50 million. The foundation would receive the bulk of the elder Henry Ford’s estate, as well as an endowment from Edsel’s, resulting in a 95 percent (non-voting) stake in Ford Motor Company valued at almost $493 million. This guaranteed $25 million of dividends per year, making the Ford Foundation by far the richest charity in the country.
When Henry Ford died in 1947, the foundation saved the Ford family more than $321 million in inheritance taxes alone. By that time Edsel Ford was dead as well, and Ford Motor was struggling, losing some $9 million each year. Having seized the reins from his ailing grandfather in 1945, Henry II took the company public in 1955, and would earn credit for restoring Ford as one of the world’s great industrial powers.
At the time of its creation, the Ford Foundation’s vague mission was to give money “for scientific, educational and charitable purposes, all for the public welfare.” Under Henry II’s leadership, the foundation ran a study to determine how it should operate in the future. Instead of focusing on any particular field, which at the time was the traditional approach of most foundations, the study group recommended that the foundation become a national and international philanthropic institution that sought to address the world’s most pressing needs, wherever they might be.
Based in New York City from 1953 on, the Ford Foundation became increasingly independent after Ford Motor Company went public. Henry II resigned as chairman in May 1956 but continued to act as a trustee until 1976. By that time, the foundation had become known for its support of such causes as public broadcasting, the arts and humanities and the development of business, education and community in poor countries around the world. Until the establishment of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2000, the Ford Foundation consistently ranked first among U.S. foundations for the most assets and the highest annual giving.