Franklin A. Thomas, Pathbreaking Ford Foundation President, Dies at 87

He rose from working-class Brooklyn to become the first Black person to run a major American philanthropic organization.

He rose from working-class Brooklyn to become the first Black person to run a major American philanthropic organization.

Franklin A. Thomas, who rose from working-class Brooklyn to become, as president of the Ford Foundation, the first Black person to run a major American philanthropic organization, died on Wednesday night at his home in Manhattan. He was 87.

Darren Walker, the foundation’s current president, confirmed the death.

Mr. Thomas was already a highly regarded nonprofit and corporate leader in 1979, when the Ford Foundation’s board of trustees chose him from among some 300 candidates to succeed McGeorge Bundy as the organization’s president.

Unlike Mr. Bundy, who had come from Massachusetts wealth and academia with a stop at the White House as national security adviser, Mr. Thomas grew up in near poverty. But driven by his hard-working immigrant mother, he won a scholarship to Columbia University and then worked for the city and federal governments before taking over a Brooklyn-based nonprofit development corporation in 1967.

He was, in other words, just the sort of fresh air that the rarefied Ford Foundation needed. Years of overspending and the economic slump of the mid-1970s had cut into its endowment — dropping it from $4.1 billion in 1973 to $1.7 billion in 1979 — and rapid inflation was eroding the value of its existing grants. Some blamed Mr. Bundy for fostering a complacent, quasi-academic environment in which too many jobs were sinecures and success was measured loosely, if at all.

Mr. Thomas was brought in to stir things up, and he did, despite being warned that the Ford Foundation was almost impossible to change. After spending close to two years studying every aspect of the foundation, he spun into action in 1981.

That May, in what became known as the Mother’s Day Massacre, he ordered the termination of some two dozen of the foundation’s top people, including a seemingly untouchable cadre of program officers and vice presidents known as “Bundy’s barons.” Most went quietly, eased out by generous separation packages, but four filed age-discrimination cases with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

He closed many of the foundation’s foreign offices and restructured its divisions to focus on six thematic areas, including urban poverty, education and public policy. Within three years, he had trimmed a staff of 442 employees to 324.

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Mr. Thomas in his Ford Foundation office in 1980. “His motto was ‘We are the R&D function of society,'” a former chairman of the foundation said.Credit…Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

The cost-cutting depressed morale for a time, but it worked. By the mid-1980s, grants from the foundation were once again on the rise, as was the endowment. When Mr. Thomas stepped down in 1996, Ford’s endowment had risen to $7 billion. Today it stands at $16 billion.

“Frank Thomas saved the Ford Foundation,” Mr. Walker said. “We were spending ourselves into irrelevance.”

Mr. Thomas, at 6 feet four inches, towered over most of his colleagues, but he tended to speak little in meetings. Those who worked with him said that his soft-spoken manner masked a forceful core, and that he was equally at home on the sidewalks of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn and in the corporate boardrooms where he sought money for his programs.

Despite the changes he imposed, he continued Ford on its progressive trajectory. Among his first steps was to create the Local Initiative Support Corporation, which provided resources and support to grass-roots development organizations, much like the one he had run in Brooklyn. By the mid-1980s it had given more than $40 million in grants or loans to hundreds of fledgling local redevelopment ventures in 27 cities.

“His motto was ‘We are the R & D function of society,'” Henry Schacht, who was chairman of the Ford Foundation board of trustees during part of Mr. Thomas’s tenure, said in an interview. “He was perfectly prepared to take the risk that some of those investments would fail, because that’s how you move forward.”

Mr. Thomas also refocused Ford on improving the lives of women, through projects as varied as producing nonsexist textbooks for use in the United States and encouraging rural women in developing countries to form their own farm organizations.

He insisted that women benefit from, and participate significantly in running, all Ford-aided projects, not just those that were gender-specific. At the fund’s Manhattan headquarters, he increased the number of women in professional positions. Ford was among the first employers in the country to offer paid paternal leave.

And although he had initially pared back some of Ford’s international efforts, by the late 1980s the revitalized organization was once again engaged with global human rights and development issues.

Mr. Thomas pushed engagement with anti-apartheid efforts in South Africa, and Ford was among the first global nonprofits to open an office there. In 1993, he persuaded Nelson Mandela, a personal friend, and F.W. de Klerk, the country’s last apartheid-era president (who died last month), to meet with President Bill Clinton in Philadelphia.

He left the foundation in 1996 — largely to focus his work on South Africa, but also because he had managed to achieve everything that he had set out to do when he took over, and more.

Asked on one occasion if his mother ever dreamed that he would become president of the Ford Foundation, he replied, “She would not have set her sights so low.”

Franklin Augustine Thomas was born in Bedford-Stuyvesant on May 27, 1934. Though he grew up in a tight-knit family of immigrants from Barbados, the neighborhood was suffering, with crime on the rise and good jobs hard to find.

His father, James, was a night watchman and laborer who died when Franklin was 11. His mother, Viola (Atherley) Thomas, worked as a waitress and housekeeper. During World War II, she went to night school so she could qualify as a machinist and make more money to support her family.

“I grew up in a family that just assumed that one, you were smart and capable; two, that you were going to work hard; and three, the combination of these meant anything was possible,” Mr. Thomas said in a 1982 interview with The New York Times.

But he also watched his mother struggle with a legal and political system that seemed to have little concern for a working-class immigrant of color like her. At one point a real estate agent tried to swindle her out of a down payment on a brownstone; though she eventually got her money back, her fight left a lasting impression on her son.

A star basketball player in high school, Mr. Thomas was offered a number of college sports scholarships, but he turned them down for a chance to go to Columbia on an academic scholarship. He joined the basketball team nevertheless, becoming the first Black captain of an Ivy League basketball team, and set several school records for rebounds, two of which still stand.

Mr. Thomas graduated in 1956 and spent four years in the Air Force before returning to Columbia for law school. He received his law degree in 1963.

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Mr. Thomas in 1971 as a member of the Knapp Commission, which, under the leadership of Judge Whitman Knapp, investigated corruption in the New York police force. Beside him at a hearing at the Bar Association Building in Manhattan were, from left, Judge Knapp, John E. Spizzo and Joseph Monserrat. Officer William R. Phillips was testifying.Credit…Eddie Hausner/The New York Times

He worked for a year on housing law for the federal government and another year with the U.S. attorney’s office in Manhattan before joining the New York Police Department as a deputy commissioner. One of his jobs in that role involved balancing demands for more community input on police conduct hearings with opposition from rank-and-file officers — the sort of diplomatic skills he would use later in the philanthropic world.

He also became more involved in community development, especially in Brooklyn. It was no surprise, then, when New York’s two U.S. senators, Robert F. Kennedy and Jacob K. Javits, urged him to become the first president of the newly formed Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a product of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society legislation.

The senators had won federal support for that nonprofit, which was established in 1967 to channel government, corporate and foundation money to Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the nation’s largest Black communities, to be used for economic development and housing, health and recreation programs.

Over the next decade, the organization restored hundreds of rowhouses, created thousands of jobs and channeled millions of dollars in mortgages to the neighborhood. It was widely regarded as one of the most successful programs to come out of the Great Society’s insistence on giving a community maximum control over federal resources.

His success in Brooklyn soon gave him a national reputation as a pragmatic, persuasive leader, and over the next several decades he joined a number of corporate boards, including those of Cummins, Citibank, CBS and Lucent, often as the lead outside director. He also sat on the Knapp Commission, which Mayor John V. Lindsay convened in 1970 under the leadership of Judge Whitman Knapp to investigate corruption in the New York police force.

“In any meeting he was in, when he decided to speak, people would listen,” said Mr. Schacht, who sat on many of the same boards. “People trusted him.”

Mr. Thomas left the Bedford-Stuyvesant corporation in 1977 to enter private law practice and to work on a farm he had bought in upstate New York. By then his first marriage, to Dawn Conrada, had ended in divorce. For a time he dated the feminist leader Gloria Steinem, and they remained close — in a 2015 article in The New Yorker, she called him “the longtime love of my life, and best friend.”(Jay Ellis played Mr. Thomas in the 2020 television mini-series “Mrs. America,” about the 1970s feminist movement.)

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Mr. Thomas speaking at a Ford Foundation event in 2013. As president from 1979 to 1996, he refocused and revitalized the organization. “Frank Thomas saved the Ford Foundation,” its current president said. “We were spending ourselves into irrelevance.”Credit…Ford Foundation

Mr. Thomas is survived by his second wife, Kate Whitney; his sons, Kyle and Keith; his daughters, Kerrie Thomas-Armstrong and Hilary Thomas-Lakee; his stepchildren, Andrea Haddad, Lulie Haddad and Laura Whitney-Thomas; 16 grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

Mr. Thomas may have been trying to downshift his career after a decade of constant grinding work, but his reputation precluded that. Jimmy Carter, then the president-elect, offered him the job of secretary of housing and urban development in late 1976; he declined, he told The Times, because he worried that “I would be spending half my time or more testifying before committees of Congress,” defending programs he didn’t always agree with.

Still, he couldn’t resist the offer to lead the Ford Foundation, which came less than three years later. Though the foundation had lost some of the luster it had in the 1960s, with its unmatched reach and bottomless pockets, he nevertheless understood its potential, and the role that a man like him could play in helping to achieve it.

“It’s an opportunity to build on this crazy, accidental combination of experiences I’ve had in an institution that’s potentially very flexible in its resources,” he said in 1979, shortly after accepting the job. “The foundation can be an initiator of activities, open to risk-taking. It can change directions without having to write new legislation.”

Joseph P. Fried contributed reporting.

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