Our History

Proudly at work for over 40 years…

Friendship Force was founded by Wayne Smith and introduced by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. Since then, the organization has held true to the ideals of bringing people together and promoting peace–and has facilitated millions of new friendships.


FF originally involved groups ranging from 150 to 400 private citizens, known as friendship ambassadors, traveling via chartered aircraft to the partner city where a group of the same size boarded to return to the original city, hence the terminology “Exchange,” the word we originally used to refer to our travel programs, now “Journey”. The visiting ambassadors were hosted in the homes of volunteer host families for a week, sharing everyday experiences and getting to know each other on a personal basis. The first FF experience involved 762 Ambassadors in a simultaneous exchange between Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England and Atlanta, Georgia, USA.



The Friendship Force was founded by Wayne Smith and introduced on March 1, 1977, by President Jimmy Carter at a White House gathering of state governors. At that time, President Carter asked the governors to return to their states and identify a volunteer leader who would serve as State Director for the Friendship Force in their state. Rosalynn Carter served as Honorary Chairperson until 2002.

While the size and number of Journeys has changed dramatically since 1977, the basic Friendship Force formula is the same, with visiting ambassadors spending a week in the home of a host family. While each Journey is now in just one direction, the participating ambassadors and hosts develop a shared understanding of each other’s culture so that a true cultural Journey takes place. In many cases, the friendships established during a Journey continue for many years, with follow-up visits through later Friendship Force Journeys or through private visits.


Mr. Ryoichi Sasakawa, President of The Japan Shipbuilding Industry Foundation, played an important role in the organization’s history. After being introduced to the Friendship Force, Mr. Sasakawa became convinced of the worthy goals of the program. Thanks to Mr. Sasakawa’s financial gifts in the mid 1980s, The Friendship Force was able to grow into a global network of independent chapters, which are called Friendship Force clubs. The clubs are organized and led by volunteers in more than 350 communities on six continents.



During its first five years, a few large two-way exchanges were conducted each year. In 1982, Friendship Force travel arrangements changed from charters to one-way “exchanges” on regularly scheduled airlines, allowing greater flexibility and a reduction of group size—first to 40-80 and later to 20-25. The change in format permitted a great expansion of the program worldwide. Instead of a few large exchanges each year, there are now 250-300 smaller exchanges.



In 1985, the A.R.M.S. (American Russian Mutual Survival) program was implemented under the auspices of The Friendship Force. The endeavor encouraged the use of arms that embrace rather than arms that destroy. In May of that year a group of 10 Soviet citizens traveled to the U.S. to extend arms of friendship in Atlanta, Georgia; Raleigh, North Carolina; Richmond, Virginia and Washington D.C. This was followed by a series of exchanges between the USA and the USSR, with thousands of Americans and Soviets participating. The success of the ARMS program demonstrated that the Friendship Force can be a powerful force for good in the world.


In addition to its annual series of exchanges between established Friendship Force clubs, Friendship Force International (FFI) conducts a variety of specialized programs. These include the “discover” series designed to introduce Friendship Force members to new countries and cultures, humanitarian and educational exchanges, and Friendship Festivals that include participants from many countries.



As a result of its initiatives between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Friendship Force was nominated in 1992 for The Nobel Peace Prize.


Due to the significant work completed in conjunction with Open World Leadership Center, Friendship Force International received their Annual Grantee of Merit Award in January 2017. The Annual Grantee of Merit Award is presented to organizations who have demonstrated outstanding service to the Open World Leadership Center. Two Friendship Force staff members traveled to Washington, D.C. to accept the award.


Members from every club around the world rallied in support of FFI, raising an unprecedented $500,000+  to save the organization as the global COVID-19 pandemic effectively halted international travel as the world went into quarantine. 

Friendship Force International pivoted from in-person programs to virtual experiences for the first time in history. Hundreds of online experiences ranging from cooking and language classes to virtual tours of cities and international coffee chats helped to connect thousands of members during prolonged isolation due to the pandemic.



The Friendship Force International Board of Directors took bold steps towards a more technological future with the launch of a members-only website (my.friendshipforce.org) to increase online privacy and security, help reinforce connections between members, and strengthen international friendship.


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