Nurturing Innovation: The E.E. Ford Foundation's Grants to Education

Nurturing Innovation: The E.E. Ford Foundation's Grants to Education

From The Yield, Spring 2014

The Edward E. Ford Foundation, a philanthropic organization, was formed to "strengthen and support independent secondary school" ( Over the nearly 60 years of its operation, the foundation has distributed over $100,000,000 in approximately 2,500 grants to 800 independent schools throughout the country.

The foundation was established in 1957 by Edward E. Ford. A graduate of Mercersburg Academy and Princeton University, Ford had an interest in and a commitment to education.  The foundation began its work in earnest about three years after its founding, when Ford appointed several new members to the board and began to work vigorously with them to develop a program directed toward his goal of improving the quality of independent secondary education.

John C. Gulla, Executive Director, accepted the baton of leadership in July 2013 and brings unique skills to the table. A former head of school, he spent 14 years at the Blake School in Minneapolis. His work, which spans a period of 33 years, both as head at Blake and in roles at other schools, has given him an intimate understanding of how independent schools approach their missions.  This experience informs his review of the proposals that come to the foundation and the recommendations he makes to the board. 

For most of its history, the foundation has responded to proposals initiated by schools seeking its support.  It has been the foundation’s approach not to prefer any one aspect of an independent school’s program or operation, or to favor any one type of school over another.  To be considered for a grant, a school must be a member of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS), have an upper school division, have a school head who has been in that role for at least two years, be in good standing with the foundation, and not have come to the foundation with a proposal within the last four years.  The grants have supported curricular innovation, initiatives in new approaches to pedagogy, financial aid, professional development for faculty, programs aimed at school governance, physical facility construction and/or renovation, adoption and integration of technology, and much more.
Over the years, the foundation has sought to catalyze change that might result in the growth, development, and improvement of the important and lasting work that takes place throughout the independent schools in our country. The foundation continues to be interested in proposals that could, if successful in one school, be replicated at other schools. It is also interested in supporting innovation, courageous thinking, and new practices that could spread like ripples through the waters of independent schools.

A relatively recent change in the foundation’s grant making process concerns the size and scope of some of the grants awarded. Six years ago, the Foundation Advisory Board decided to devote one of its three annual meetings to the consideration of larger Leadership Grants of $250,000, rather than its customary “school-initiated proposals” for grants for up to $50,000.  These would be awarded to schools that were asked to submit proposals to address a “framing question” established by the Board.

This meeting is held each April, with a different framing question every year.  When it comes to a successful proposal, communication is key. The only way that a school-initiated proposal can be placed on the foundation’s agenda is for the school head to place a call to the foundation. For a foundation grant application to be “successful,” many different factors are considered. The final decisions about each proposal are made by the advisory board, which is comprised of descendants of Mr. Ford, friends of the family, and former and current independent school heads.

“I am sure that my sense of what makes for a successful proposal will continue to grow and become more well defined with additional experience,” says Gulla, “but my sense is that the most successful proposals are those that reflect the priorities of the school seeking support — a proposal of some originality and creativity, that might, if successful, be replicated by other schools, that might be daring, that might not be possible at the school making the proposal without the foundation’s support, and that inspire a sophisticated advisory board’s understanding of what might be possible in the world of independent schools.”
Due to the changing educational landscape, it is important for heads, business officers, and admission teams to focus on their institution’s goals when approaching everything from grant proposals to pedagogy.  In order to do this, a school must be guided by its mission. According to Gulla, “One of the most important insights I have gained in my months with the E.E. Ford Foundation concerns the great variety of schools with dramatically different missions that make up the much larger NAIS family.”

Heads, business office leaders, and admission teams essentially need to keep a sharp focus on the school’s mission as they work to establish enrollment goals.  These goals can transform over time as the demographics, economy, and educational options in a given area might change.  Grants from E.E. Ford help independent schools blaze new pathways and diversify for the good of students and for the good of education.  Gulla, who has seen firsthand the diversity of independent schools, states, “In an educational world seemingly hell-bent on homogenization, we represent, as a group of schools, the maxim that is truer than any other I have discovered in this work that we do: in schools (and by that I really mean in our approach to education), it can never be “one size fits all.”

The mission of The Edward E. Ford Foundation is to strengthen and support independent secondary schools and to challenge and inspire them to leverage their unique talents, expertise and resources to advance teaching and learning throughout this country by supporting and disseminating best practice, by supporting efforts to develop and implement models of sustainability, and by encouraging collaboration with other institutions.


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