A Memoir of the Ford Foundation: The Early Years

A dozen years into a new century, and with the Ford Foundation announcing eight- and nine-figure grants in support of leadership and documentary film initiatives, global human rights groups in the Southern Hemisphere, and expanded learning time in public schools, it might surprise some to learn that the second-largest foundation in the U.S. was launched in 1936 as a corporate foundation with a modest endowment of $25,000.

Much has changed in the decades since, both in the world and at the foundation, which has been shaped as much by postwar geopolitical shifts as by a succession of ambitious executives and the financial resources left it by Henry Ford and his only child, Edsel. In a just-published memoir, one of those executives, Verne S. Atwater, with help from fellow Ford alum Evelyn C. Walsh, leads readers through his tenure at the foundation and shares his memories of the people who directed Ford and its groundbreaking programs during a period when it was by far the largest foundation in the country — and arguably the most influential.

Atwater, who worked in banking and academia before joining Ford, served as the foundation's first vice president of administration — in which role he was responsible for overseeing construction of the foundation's landmark headquarters building on East 43rd Street in Manhattan. He also worked with many of the program directors who helped develop and promote the foundation's international education and arts programs, its critical support for the agriculturally focused development effort known as the Green Revolution, and any number of efforts to promote democracy and "advance human welfare" around the globe.

As is often the case, context is crucial. Atwater was at Ford from 1956 to 1968 — a period during which the foundation's work was very much influenced by the work of the Gaither Study Committee. Chaired by H. Rowan Gaither (who would serve as the foundation's president from 1953 to 1956), the committee, at the behest of Henry Ford II, issued a report in 1949 that was the basis for many of its initiatives over the succeeding decades. In those early postwar years, anti-communism was the political flavor of the day, and the foundation, eager to counteract the perception that its programs might be providing aid and comfort to Communists, responded by severing its ties to the Fund for the Republic.

The Gaither committee and its report also drew on the insights of many of the people who helped develop the Marshall Plan. One of them, Paul Hoffman, who directed the Economic Cooperation Administration set up by the U.S. government in 1948 to administer the plan, was chosen by Henry Ford II to take over as president of the foundation. Hoffman subsequently played a critical role in the foundation's decision to open offices in India, Pakistan, Indonesia, and elsewhere in Asia. Similarly, John J. McCloy, U.S. High Commissioner for Germany from 1949 to 1952, chaired the foundation's board from 1958 to 1965.

Atwater admits to a degree of naiveté in terms of what he was getting involved in by following his mentor, Thomas Carroll, dean of the business school at Syracuse University, to the foundation. "In the euphoria of my youthful...postwar expectations, I almost missed the small signs that the work of the foundation to 'advance human welfare' would be more difficult to achieve than perceived by the authors of the [Gaither] study report," Atwater writes. "They would be encumbered by the limitations, frailties, and ambitions of the men and women who guided its affairs as officers, program directors, staff, advisors, and grantees."

He had plenty of opportunity during his time at the foundation to observe his fellow executives in action, however, and he does a fine job of giving his readers a sense of what it was like to be at the center of things during those heady years. Most of his portrayals are affectionate, and major disagreements between colleagues are downplayed. Especially touching is his portrait of Henry Heald, who resigned as president of New York University to take over from Gaither as president of the foundation and whose management innovations were often a departure from the way things had been done at the foundation. Atwater tells us, for example, that in previous administrations program officers had been able to slip a grant proposal directly to the board for approval. Heald, who graced the cover of TIME magazine in June 1957, ended that practice. Similarly, while foundation policy before Heald's arrival limited a program officer's tenure to five years and made frequent use of consultants and short-term program specialists, Heald believed that allowing program officers to stay longer contributed to a more stable management environment.

The board, however, did not always agree with Heald's decisions, and after nine years it decided not to renew his contract. "He was hurt and bitter about the decision," Atwater writes. Years later, Heald "was still resentful, lonely, and sad as I presented him with a small picture I had seen in his office over the years. He appreciated it and thanked me for remembering him and the picture." Atwater's disappointment, all these years later, over the fact that Heald, a man he admired, died before seeing the fruits of the initiatives launched during his tenure including the foundation's support for the Green Revolution and the construction of its world-famous headquarters building is palpable.

Atwater also served the foundation in Argentina, overseeing education programs there, and traveled extensively to check on and consult with staff members working in India, Asia, and the Middle East travels that gave him a unique perspective on Ford's role in said Green Revolution. As Atwater describes it, the effort grew out of conversations between George Harrar, then president of the Rockefeller Foundation and the man responsible for selecting agronomist Norman Borlaug to lead the foundation's development efforts in Mexico, and Forrest "Frosty" Hill, Ford's vice president of overseas development and an agricultural economist who had previously chaired the department of agriculture at Cornell University. Most days, Harrar and Hill took the train from Scarsdale into New York City, and it was during those shared commutes that they realized they could achieve more working as partners than as friendly rivals. Subsequently, the two foundations collaborated during the 1960s to bring Borlaug's work in Mexico to India, the Philippines and other parts of Asia one of the signal philanthropic achievements of the twentieth century.

Indeed, the tale of commuting friends who helped conceive an effort that improved the lives of a billion people around the globe is just one of many wonderful stories shared by Atwater and Walsh. Less a comprehensive history of the Ford Foundation than an impressionistic behind-the-scenes account of what it was like to work at the foundation as it rose to international prominence, A Memoir of the Ford Foundation: The Early Years is a splendid addition to the growing literature about twentieth-century philanthropy and ably demonstrates that philanthropy, while an inherently personal endeavor, has the potential to exceed even our grandest expectations.

Matt Sinclair
Editor, PND
Foundation Center
New York, New York