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Foundation Profiles; The giant's agenda: equity, excellence

Among foundations, Ford is the giant. Its assets, $2 1/2 billion, are more than double those of the second-biggest foundation, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

This year and again next year, the Ford Foundation will give away $240 million in the United States and abroad for programs intended to advance the public welfare. One-fourth of this will go to programs that combat urban and rural poverty; then, in descending order, the Ford budget addresses human rights and social justice, education and culture, international affairs, and governance and public policy.

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The annual education and culture allocation of $20 million ''will remain about constant for the decade,'' in the opinion of Dr. Edward J. Meade Jr., chief program officer for urban poverty programs and director of elementary- and secondary-education programs of the foundation.

Ford's objectives in its educational programs are equity and excellence: equal access for minorities and women, excellent educational programs in high schools, colleges, and universities. Ford also assists the development of talented artists and performing-arts groups.

In pursuit of these objectives, the foundation can cite some generous gifts, including: its funding in the 1960s of challenge grants to universities (Stanford alone received $25 million), $50 million to black colleges in the 1970 s, establishment of the national merit scholarship program, improvement of faculty salaries, Venture Fund grants in the late 1960s to improve the quality of teaching in institutions of higher education, graduate training in foreign languages and foreign-area studies.

Currently the Ford Foundation emphasizes the importance of liberal arts, humanities, and social science disciplines. It is interested in adult education and in the cultural identity and traditions of developing countries. One currently supported program helps black, native American, Mexican American, and Puerto Rican scholars advance their careers by providing them with postdoctoral fellowships.

To make its grants go as far as possible, Ford is ''very tough on overhead,'' says Dr. Meade. ''The figure revolves around 10 to 11 percent,'' he estimates.

''Yes, we do monitor the progress of grantees,'' he says. ''Every grantee makes a narrative report and a fiscal report annually. Sometimes a program includes an evaluation component, where someone else (a peer group, consultants, for example) participate in the evaluation.

"But it isn't always possible to say, with a long-term program, whether or not it has accomplished its goals. In fact, the goals may be far in the future."

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The 10 largest foundations are the Ford Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the S.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, The Pew Memorial Trust, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Rockefeller Brothers Foundation, the Kresge Foundation, the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Duke Endowment. All of the top 10 except the Robert Wood Johnson, Rockefeller Brothers, and Kresge Foundations give grants for education.

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