Ford Motor Company Fund Playing Major Role in Detroit Transformation, Invested $20 Million Last Year

In 1922 Henry Ford donated 13 Model Ts to help disabled American veterans get to and from appointments. It was just one of his many philanthropic endeavors.

He also created several trade schools, created or donated land for libraries, university and college campuses, hospitals, churches, recreational facilities, and highway interchanges. You probably don’t know this, but in average years, Ford gave away about 33 percent of his income and often gave away money, food, automobiles, or other articles, according to the Philanthropy Roundtable.

Out of that dedication to improving quality of life for many, the Ford Motor Company Fund was created in 1949. Since then it has invested nearly $1.5 billion in civic organizations around the world. Detroit has been on the receiving end of a good portion of that investment.

“Detroit is our home and we will continue to have a huge presence,” says Jim Vella, president of the Ford Motor Company Fund, the philanthropic arm of Ford Motor Company. “We have a 67-year history and have stayed true to our mission.”

Last year the fund invested $20 million in local education, arts, cultural, diversity, hunger relief, and social organizations in Detroit. The fund gave out a total of $55.6 million last year, so Detroit’s portion was substantial. It has invested $161 million over 10 years in southeast Michigan, and it plans to do more.

“We are looking for out-of-the-box thinking that makes an impact on people’s lives,” says Vella, pointing out the fund is also looking for projects that can be replicated in other cities.

The Ford Fund is looking to the future for that innovative thinking and is tapping the Ford Motor Company’s Smart Mobility team to see what projects it can use to improve the quality of life for communities and their residents.

Ford is a mobility company – notice we said mobility, not automotive. It sees things like car-sharing, ride-hailing and other services as essential to its future. It created Smart Mobility as a full-fledged subsidiary back in January 2015 to find alternative means of transportation.

“We have one foot in today and one foot in tomorrow,” says Vella. “What is the social impact of invention? How can we move the needle? When we look at social issues we are not moving the needle enough.”

He believes mobility, and all that goes with it, offers answers.

“How could ride-sharing help get people from one place to another, to doctor’s appointments and jobs?” says Vella. He says the one common denominator around the world is the smart phone and that is an opportunity to reap social benefits.

“We want to bring people together to look at next steps and take the innovation at Ford to help solve social issues,” he says. “Our goal is to help make people’s lives better.”

The fund invests in projects that reduce the number of people in need of services, and that takes collaboration. The fund continues to look for partners with programs that will help revitalize the city.

Education rules

Education is essential to improving those lives so teaching kids to read is high on the Ford Fund’s agenda.

It is bringing Ford Driving Dreams, which includes book donations, scholarships, grants, motivational pep rallies, and an essay contest, to students in Detroit. In collaboration with First Book, it just donated 10,000 new books to kindergarten through elementary school students. To celebrate the day former professional boxer Oscar De La Hoya and Ford representatives read to 65 third graders from Amelia Earhart Elementary School, who attended the festivities at the Ford Resource and Development Center in Southwest Detroit.

De La Hoya, a former professional boxer known as the “Golden Boy” and 10-time world champion, read from his children’s book “Super Oscar.” He has started a charitable foundation to help underprivileged youth find a path in education through his firm Golden Boy Productions.

“Education is central to our mission of improving people’s lives,” says Vella, “Encouraging our young people to read and explore the world through books is a tremendous way to empower future generations and enable them to reach their full potential.”

Kids must be able to read well by the third grade to prepare for what’s next – coding, he says, and discussions are ongoing on how to accomplish that and teach them that programming language.

“We will continue to focus on education – our No.1 priority – creating and implementing innovative new programs that cultivate the skills needed to create tomorrow’s innovations,” Vella has said.

Earlier this year the Detroit Fund awarded Children’s Hospital of Michigan Foundation a $10,000 grant for Reach Out and Read (ROAR), which helps children undergoing medical care remain proficient in reading. The grant allowed the program to continue.

“Last year, 93 percent of students from Detroit Public Schools were not proficient in reading. Detroit is one of the U.S. cities most affected by illiteracy issues,” says Lindsay Heering Children’s Hospital of Michigan service excellence director. “At the Children’s Hospital of Michigan General Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine Clinic our pediatricians give their patients a new book during each well visit until they are 5-years-old. Our pediatricians talk to the parents about the importance of reading aloud to their children and give them literacy tips to work on at home.”

To further education, the Detroit Fund created the Henry Ford Academy in collaboration with The Henry Ford and the Wayne County Regional Service Agency. It is the nation’s first charter high school created jointly by a global corporation, public education and a major nonprofit cultural institution. The majority of students come from Detroit and are of diverse backgrounds. The student body is predominantly African American, but includes Arab American, Latino and Caucasian students.

The school’s college preparatory curriculum prepares students to compete and succeed in a global economy.

That program has been replicated in San Antonio and Chicago.

The Detroit Fund has also invested in the Henry Ford Academy: School for Creative Studies in New Center.

Tiny Homes

Another program that can be replicated is Tiny Homes, a $1.5 million project in the Cass community. Spearheaded by Cass Community Social Services, it is a game changer for that neighborhood. One of the major contributors to the project is the Ford Fund, which donated $400,000. The homes will be between 250 and 400 square feet and will provide affordable housing for low-income owners.

“These are exciting times,” says Vella. “We have a great opportunity to reinvent spaces in Detroit. Tiny Homes put us on the map. Lots of land is not being used and this was a unique opportunity.”

Transformed Mercado Southwest Detroit

One of those transformational projects was turning Mexicantown’s empty Mercado Building into the Ford Resource and Development Center (FREC). Announced in 2012, it is the centerpiece of Ford’s $10 million initiative called “Operation Brighter Future – Detroit.”

The Mercado became a community space where people can learn new skills, obtain needed services that address hunger, develop new talents and celebrate the community.

Again collaboration was key.

There is a legal clinic done in partnership with the University of Detroit Mercy Law School. Gleaners Food Bank operates the food service center. Arts and Scraps brings family friendly activities using recycle materials to the center free of charge.

“The FREC has become an important community asset in Detroit, thanks to the support of the Ford Motor Company Fund,” says Steve Ragan, senior vice president for development and external relations at Southwest Solutions. “In addition to their capital support for the facility, they have provided ongoing program support for many of the organizations that use the FREC.”

For example, Southwest Solutions has been able to offer job training and financial literacy programming at the center, Ragan says.

“Support from the Ford Motor Company Fund was also helped Southwest Solutions hold a cultural celebration and concert series at the FREC throughout the summer and fall each year that draws thousands of local residents and visitors to the FREC,” he says.

The center began as an innovative model of community engagement, the fund says in its 2015 annual report, and after three years, it is providing a return of $3 for every $1 invested.

More from $10 million investment

In addition to the resource center, the $10 million Ford Fund investment also:

  • Adopted the Patton Recreation Center in Southwest Detroit and funded a variety of youth programming, including arts, gymnastics, lacrosse, karate and swimming
  • Funded a summer camp program at Patton to serve 80 to 90 youth and will also provide a limited number of scholarships for youth to attend this “Brighter Future Summer Camp”
  • Funded the Detroit Summer Youth Employment program that provides training and work experience for youth ages 14 to 21
  • Supported projects by The Greening of Detroit to turn vacant areas into parks
  • Donated two F-Series chassis to the Detroit Public Safety Foundation, which were converted into new ambulances for the city of Detroit

Addressing hunger

The Ford Mobile Food Pantries program, which helps social service organizations in southeast Michigan collect and distribute food to those in need. Since the program began in 2009, the Ford Fund has donated 22 vans for food collections and deliveries. In 2012 alone, it contributed $353,000, which allowed the mobile pantries to serve more than 1.1 million meals in southeast Michigan that year.

Like so many programs the fund invests in, the mobile food panty is expanding to other locations in the U.S.

The Ford Fund also:

  • Sent 30 original Rosie the Riveters to Washington to celebrate their contributions to WW II
  • Ford Motor Company Fund today supported an honor flight to Washington, D.C. for 31 Original Rosie the Riveters. Many of the Rosies worked at Ford’s Willow Run Bomber Plant, which built one B-24 an hour during WWII.
  • Donated $100,000 to Gleaners to purchase enough formula to feed 7,000 infants for a month
  • Donated a 2016 Ford Transit Connect refrigerated van to Eastern Market Corporation to help the organization continue and expand the number of Eastern Market Farm Stand locations in Detroit each week and allowed the program to carry a line of perishable products they were not capable of providing previously
  • Is one of the sponsors of Maker’s Faire Detroit and the Teatro Chico, a community event of music, dance and art celebrating the Day of the Dead in Southwest Detroit
  • The Ford Fund also presents the Ford Fireworks and is a sponsor of America’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. Ford will have a new float this year.

“This is the best job I have ever had,” says Vella. “It is great to be part of the solution.”

Marge Sorge,