DETROIT - The Ford Motor Co. Fund is quietly shifting into the fast lane of corporate philanthropy, leaving its automotive rivals in the dust by donating $57 million to nonprofits nationwide in 1999, a 128 percent increase over annual giving in 1996.
Ford Motor Co. Fund Executive Director Gary Nielsen, predicting more growth this year, said the fund has historically been between 17th and 19th in the nation in rankings of the top corporate givers but now sits between fifth and eighth place.
Nielsen said the Dearborn, Mich., fund focuses on aiding company priorities such as education, health and welfare, arts and humanities, civic activities and the environment.
When the fund gave its most recent $12.7 million in grants in January, Ford Chairman William Clay Ford Jr. said his company plans to 'lead the world in corporate citizenship and responsibility.'
Nielsen, who has spent his career at Ford in sales and marketing jobs, is credited by many for the changes that have occurred since he took the helm of the fund in 1997. The fund is giving more gifts and bigger high-profile gifts than funds from rival automakers.
For example, the fund last month announced major education-related gifts totaling $12.7 million for the Detroit Zoo, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, the Detroit Science Center and Henry Ford Academy, a new charter school. The joint announcement gained Ford far more attention than the grants would have received if announced individually.
In Detroit, where the decisions of major automakers have a ripple effect on other industries, the increased giving from Ford influences other charitable givers as well, said Peter Remington, a fund-raising consultant in Southfield, Mich.
'When you're presenting a proposal, one of the first questions foundations ask is, `Where's the Big 3 on this?' ' Remington said. 'That's a big burden on the car companies, and it's not fair, but that's the reality.'
He said Ford's new emphasis on major gifts has created a bigger bang than several smaller gifts would have.
Many of the more high-profile buildings or programs the gifts created were named for Ford, spreading the company's name and influence further, Remington added.
'Many foundations in the past have tried to take care of everybody, sprinkling a little all over, but where's the impact?' Remington said. 'What (Ford is) really saying is we're going to put real money behind these efforts. We're going to make a difference.'
In 1997, the major automakers were closer in their charitable giving, though Ford still dominated. According to IRS-990-PF forms, the Ford Motor Co. Fund made U.S. grants totaling $33 million in 1997, the General Motors Foundation gave $26.65 million and the Chrysler Corp. Fund gave $25.37 million.
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The Council of Michigan Foundations, which tracks foundation and corporate giving, said 1997 was the last year totals for GM were available through either corporate reports or IRS-990 forms on file.
Nielsen said Ford previously had small hurdles that seemed to discourage grant requests such as a $3 charge to get a list of its grant guidelines. Today, he said, the information is given out free, publicized in a report called 'Ford Cares' and available on the Internet.
The three companies' grants are paid out almost exclusively in the United States and do not count charitable giving from different funds in other countries where charitable donation and tax laws are different.
After the 1998 merger that created DaimlerChrysler, the renamed DaimlerChrysler Corp. Fund gave about $31 million domestically in 1999, said fund Secretary Lynn Feldhouse, saying a budget hasn't been set for 2000.
Feldhouse called Ford's increased donations 'wonderful' and said different companies give more in different years. She said DaimlerChrysler hasn't publicized its gifts as much or sought as many naming rights as Ford. Naming a nonprofit's building after a single company could discourage other companies from supporting it, she said.
Officials from the GM Foundation could not be reached. A GM spokeswoman said a total for GM's charitable giving in 1999 was not available.
The Ford family's philanthropic tradition dates back to Henry Ford, who founded the Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, Henry Ford Hospital and the $8 billion New York City-based Ford Foundation, which has no ties to the company.