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

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He roseate from working-class Brooklyn to go the archetypal Black idiosyncratic to tally a large American philanthropic organization.

Franklin A. Thomas overlooking Bedford-Stuyvesant, the Brooklyn vicinity  successful  which helium  grew up, successful  1979. He was elected president   of the Ford Foundation that aforesaid  year, aft  starring  the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation. 
Credit...Don Hogan Charles/The New York Times

Clay Risen

Dec. 23, 2021, 10:53 a.m. ET

Franklin A. Thomas, who roseate from working-class Brooklyn to become, arsenic president of the Ford Foundation, the archetypal Black idiosyncratic to tally a large American philanthropic organization, died connected Wednesday nighttime astatine his location successful Manhattan. He was 87.

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

Mr. Thomas was already a highly regarded nonprofit and firm person successful 1979, erstwhile the Ford Foundation’s committee of trustees chose him from among immoderate 300 candidates to win McGeorge Bundy arsenic the organization’s president.

Unlike Mr. Bundy, who had travel from Massachusetts wealthiness and academia with a halt astatine the White House arsenic nationalist information adviser, Mr. Thomas grew up successful adjacent poverty. But driven by his hard-working migrant mother, helium won a assistance to Columbia University and past worked for the metropolis and national governments earlier taking implicit a Brooklyn-based nonprofit improvement corp successful 1967.

He was, successful different words, conscionable the benignant of caller aerial that the rarefied Ford Foundation needed. Years of overspending and the economical slump of the mid-1970s had chopped into its endowment — dropping it from $4.1 cardinal successful 1973 to $1.7 cardinal successful 1979 — and accelerated ostentation was eroding the worth of its existing grants. Some blamed Mr. Bundy for fostering a complacent, quasi-academic situation successful which excessively galore jobs were sinecures and occurrence was measured loosely, if astatine all.

Mr. Thomas was brought successful to disturbance things up, and helium did, contempt being warned that the Ford Foundation was astir intolerable to change. After spending adjacent to 2 years studying each facet of the foundation, helium spun into enactment successful 1981.

That May, successful what became known arsenic the Mother’s Day Massacre, helium ordered the termination of immoderate 2 twelve of the foundation’s apical people, including a seemingly untouchable cadre of programme officers and vice presidents known arsenic “Bundy’s barons.” Most went quietly, eased retired by generous separation packages, but 4 filed age-discrimination cases with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

He closed galore of the foundation’s overseas offices and restructured its divisions to absorption connected six thematic areas, including municipality poverty, acquisition and nationalist policy. Within 3 years, helium had trimmed a unit of 442 employees to 324.


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 instauration were erstwhile again connected the rise, arsenic was the endowment. When Mr. Thomas stepped down successful 1996, Ford’s endowment had risen to $7 billion. Today it stands astatine $16 billion.

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

Mr. Thomas, astatine 6 feet 4 inches, towered implicit astir of his colleagues, but helium tended to talk small successful meetings. Those who worked with him said that his soft-spoken mode masked a forceful core, and that helium was arsenic astatine location connected the sidewalks of Bedford-Stuyvesant successful Brooklyn and successful the firm boardrooms wherever helium sought wealth for his programs.

Despite the changes helium imposed, helium continued Ford connected its progressive trajectory. Among his archetypal steps was to make the Local Initiative Support Corporation, which provided resources and enactment to grass-roots improvement organizations, overmuch similar the 1 helium had tally successful Brooklyn. By the mid-1980s it had fixed much than $40 cardinal successful grants oregon loans to hundreds of fledgling section redevelopment ventures successful 27 cities.

“His motto was ‘We are the R&D relation of society,’” Henry Schacht, who was president of the Ford Foundation committee of trustees during portion of Mr. Thomas’s tenure, said successful an interview. “He was perfectly prepared to instrumentality the hazard that immoderate of those investments would fail, due to the fact that that’s however you determination forward.”

Mr. Thomas besides refocused Ford connected improving the lives of women, done projects arsenic varied arsenic producing nonsexist textbooks for usage successful the United States and encouraging agrarian women successful processing countries to signifier their ain workplace organizations.

He insisted that women payment from, and enactment importantly successful running, each Ford-aided projects, not conscionable those that were gender-specific. At the fund’s Manhattan headquarters, helium accrued the fig of women successful nonrecreational positions. Ford was among the archetypal employers successful the state to connection paid paternal leave.

And though helium had initially pared backmost immoderate of Ford’s planetary efforts, by the precocious 1980s the revitalized enactment was erstwhile again engaged with planetary quality rights and improvement issues.

Mr. Thomas pushed engagement with anti-apartheid efforts successful South Africa, and Ford was among the archetypal planetary nonprofits to unfastened an bureau there. In 1993, helium persuaded Nelson Mandela, a idiosyncratic friend, and F.W. de Klerk, the country’s past apartheid-era president (who died past month), to conscionable with President Bill Clinton successful Philadelphia.

He near the instauration successful 1996 — mostly to absorption his enactment connected South Africa, but besides due to the fact that helium had managed to execute everything that helium had acceptable retired to bash erstwhile helium took over, and more.

Asked connected 1 juncture if his parent ever dreamed that helium would go president of the Ford Foundation, helium replied, “She would not person acceptable her sights truthful low.”

Franklin Augustine Thomas was calved successful Bedford-Stuyvesant connected May 27, 1934. Though helium grew up successful a tight-knit household of immigrants from Barbados, the vicinity was suffering, with transgression connected the emergence and bully jobs hard to find.

His father, James, was a nighttime watchman and laborer who died erstwhile Franklin was 11. His mother, Viola (Atherley) Thomas, worked arsenic a waitress and housekeeper. During World War II, she went to nighttime schoolhouse truthful she could suffice arsenic a machinist and marque much wealth to enactment her family.

“I grew up successful a household that conscionable assumed that one, you were astute and capable; two, that you were going to enactment hard; and three, the operation of these meant thing was possible,” Mr. Thomas said successful a 1982 interrogation with The New York Times.

But helium besides watched his parent conflict with a ineligible and governmental strategy that seemed to person small interest for a working-class migrant of colour similar her. At 1 constituent a existent property cause tried to swindle her retired of a down outgo connected a brownstone; though she yet got her wealth back, her combat near a lasting content connected her son.

A prima hoops subordinate successful precocious school, Mr. Thomas was offered a fig of assemblage sports scholarships, but helium turned them down for a accidental to spell to Columbia connected an world scholarship. He joined the hoops squad nevertheless, becoming the archetypal Black skipper of an Ivy League hoops team, and acceptable respective schoolhouse records for rebounds, 2 of which inactive stand.

Mr. Thomas graduated successful 1956 and spent 4 years successful the Air Force earlier returning to Columbia for instrumentality school. He received his instrumentality grade successful 1963.


Credit...Eddie Hausner/The New York Times

He worked for a twelvemonth connected lodging instrumentality for the national authorities and different twelvemonth with the U.S. attorney’s bureau successful Manhattan earlier joining the New York Police Department arsenic a lawman commissioner. One of his jobs successful that relation progressive balancing demands for much assemblage input connected constabulary behaviour hearings with absorption from rank-and-file officers — the benignant of diplomatic skills helium would usage aboriginal successful the philanthropic world.

He besides became much progressive successful assemblage development, particularly successful Brooklyn. It was nary surprise, then, erstwhile New York’s 2 U.S. senators, Robert F. Kennedy and Jacob K. Javits, urged him to go the archetypal president of the recently formed Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation, a merchandise of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society legislation.

The senators had won national enactment for that nonprofit, which was established successful 1967 to transmission government, firm and instauration wealth to Bedford-Stuyvesant, 1 of the nation’s largest Black communities, to beryllium utilized for economical improvement and housing, wellness and recreation programs.

Over the adjacent decade, the enactment restored hundreds of rowhouses, created thousands of jobs and channeled millions of dollars successful mortgages to the neighborhood. It was wide regarded arsenic 1 of the astir palmy programs to travel retired of the Great Society’s insistence connected giving a assemblage maximum power implicit national resources.

His occurrence successful Brooklyn soon gave him a nationalist estimation arsenic a pragmatic, persuasive leader, and implicit the adjacent respective decades helium joined a fig of firm boards, including those of Cummins, Citibank, CBS and Lucent, often arsenic the pb extracurricular director. He besides sat connected the Knapp Commission, which Mayor John V. Lindsay convened successful 1970 nether the enactment of Judge Whitman Knapp to analyse corruption successful the New York constabulary force.

“In immoderate gathering helium was in, erstwhile helium decided to speak, radical would listen,” said Mr. Schacht, who sat connected galore of the aforesaid boards. “People trusted him.”

Mr. Thomas near the Bedford-Stuyvesant corp successful 1977 to participate backstage instrumentality signifier and to enactment connected a workplace that helium had bought successful upstate New York. By past his archetypal marriage, to Dawn Conrada, had ended successful divorce. For a clip helium dated the feminist person Gloria Steinem. (Jay Ellis played Mr. Thomas successful the 2020 tv mini-series “Mrs. America,” astir the 1970s feminist movement.)


Credit...Ford Foundation

Mr. Thomas is survived by his 2nd 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 4 great-grandchildren.

Mr. Thomas whitethorn person been trying to downshift his vocation aft a decennary of changeless grinding work, but his estimation precluded that. Jimmy Carter, past the president-elect, offered him the occupation of caput of lodging and municipality improvement successful precocious 1976; helium declined, helium told The Times, due to the fact that helium disquieted that “I would beryllium spending fractional my clip oregon much testifying earlier committees of Congress,” defending programs helium didn’t ever hold with.

Still, helium couldn’t defy the connection to pb the Ford Foundation, which came little than 3 years later. Though the instauration had mislaid immoderate of the luster it had successful the 1960s, with its unmatched scope and bottomless pockets, helium nevertheless understood its potential, and the relation that a antheral similar him could play successful helping to execute it.

“It’s an accidental to physique connected this crazy, accidental operation of experiences I’ve had successful an instauration that’s perchance precise flexible successful its resources,” he said successful 1979, soon aft accepting the job. “The instauration tin beryllium an initiator of activities, unfastened to risk‐taking. It tin alteration directions without having to constitute caller legislation.”

Joseph P. Fried contributed reporting.

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