At the helm of the world's largest and richest foundation

Want to change the world? The President of the United States has a good shot at it. So, too, do the chief executive officers of IBM and Bank of America. The president of the Ford Foundation would be on anybody's list of world-changers, as well.

Franklin A. Thomas runs the Ford Foundation. Since becoming its president in 1979, the Brooklyn-born graduate of Columbia Law School has been trying, and in many ways succeeding, in doing some world changing.

With some $3.4 billion in assets (which can fluctuate as much as $700 million in a year, depending on capital markets) and a 1984 projected program budget of is the largest private foundation in the world, with assets double that of the nearest US foundation.

''There are enormous privileges (working here),'' Mr. Thomas told the Monitor at the foundation's Manhattan headquarters, located just a stone's throw from the UN. In a rare personal interview, the tall former basketball star described his experience as a ''mixture of your greatest fantasy to do good things with the capacity to implement them.''

Much like the coach of a winning team, Mr. Thomas placed little emphasis on his own role but keen interest on how his team was playing. He confidently outlined goals and strategies for the Ford Foundation.

''There is enormous debate about effectiveness - delivering goods and services to people. So much so that there has been an evolving sense in the world, most pronounced in parts of Asia but increasingly evident in Latin America and starting to be evident in Africa, that we need to look outside of government for the incentives and institutions that will be more effective in producing goods and services needed for people,'' said Thomas.

''Part of the great struggle going on I see around the world is to find ways to introduce aspects of capitalism with aspects of socialism, and as an institution we have the time and resources to think about doing it.''

One rule Thomas has made for his nearly 600 full-time employees (more than a 60 percent reduction from the staff he inherited) is to ''never lose our focus on individuals, no matter how big the issue or trend. (The rule) is not just a road map, it's a guiding light'' on how things are to be done, he said.

The foundation's High School Recognition Program is an example of this. In 1982 this program identified and financially rewarded more than 200 inner-city high schools for making the kinds of academic improvements an ensuing flood of education reports and commissions would call for a year later.

The two-year project greatly changed the morale of individual schools, personally touching the lives of students and faculty at a time when the pubic mood on education was at an all-time low. (This reporter covered the story and saw in city after city students and faculty bask in the overwhelmingly positive response of community leaders and local press for ''their'' school.)

Beyond boosting individual morale, the project tagged characteristics of school excellence showing they existed in places where the public at large didn't think they did. The message went out that school excellence could be replicated in all school districts.

As a community development executive in Brooklyn's largely black Bedford-Stuyvesant neigborhood for ten years, Thomas has an abiding interest in black teen-age unemployment. The recent 10 percent drop in the unemployment rate for this group is the result of many factors, not the least of which is a host of programs sponsored by the Ford Foundation.

Thomas is the first to admit the Ford Foundation does not have the power of the US government, the business acumen of IBM, or the financial clout of the Bank of America. But he does seek to combine a judicious mix of all three with a fourth element - what he called the ''fat kid in the canoe, without being in the canoe.'' It is a conscious effort to play down the visibility of the foundation in a given project.

This allows the foundation ''to swim'' in a lot of waters and take its grant ideas, along with its prestige and its not insignificant staff capacity, and put them all to work with and for others.

''You'll find us reaching out for partners, not only with other foundations or charitable institutions that have some resources, not only with government. But you'll find us reaching out to the for-profit sector - and not only to its charitable component, though that's clearly involved, but also to its method of doing business,'' said Thomas.

An example of this is Ford's involvement in establishing the Public Education Fund. Ford gave $2 million to launch this project, now headquartered in Pittsburgh. The fund helps local communities set up special independent tax-exempt funds, led by civic, business, and cultural leaders, which award small grants to support projects that improve teaching and learning in individual schools.

Philanthropy enlists only a small portion of America's resources and thus can operate only at the margin of the economy. But the leverage of change is found at the margin, and private philanthropic initiatives have their greatest effect there, Thomas said.

Under Thomas's leadership the foundation has continued its transnational approach to solving problems. About one- third of its program budget is allocated for activities outside the United States. These include a host of projects falling into the broad categories of population studies, refugees and migration, international peace and security, economics, and governmental relations and human rights.

The re-organizaton of the foundation's program staff into a single program division was one of the major changes Thomas implemented. ''(It enables) us to take maximum advantage of the presence of foundation staff overseas and of the natural links between our work in the US and abroad.''

One new twist has been to reverse the direction in which information flows, with the US sometimes on the receiving end of advice. A Ford-supported home-visiting program in East Austin, Texas, set up to promote the health and intellectual development of Mexican-American children, has used approaches developed in Latin America.

Poor US farmers, Mr. Thomas said, can be threatened by limited access to water, ''a situation not unlike that faced by many farmers in India, the Philippines, and Bangladesh'' - all areas where the foundation has set up water management programs. In adapting such water management techniques to the US, the foundation expects to benefit from knowledge gained from abroad. Thomas also initiated an International Irrigation Management Institute in Sri Lanka this past year.

A look at one series of $3.7 million grants for international peace and security studies shows the foundation selecting 16 universities and research institutions here and abroad from more than 120 applicants from 18 countries. The grants support research on the ethics of nuclear weapons policies, the psychological bases of the Soviet-American conflict, the future of UN peacekeeping operations, and tensions in the NATO and Warsaw Pact alliances.

With military technologies changing the character of war itself, much of our traditional thinking on the subject may be obsolete, said Thomas. And since the issue affects every man, woman, and child on the planet, the $33 million the foundation has spent on research and training on international security and arms control in the last 25 years is considered well spent.

The foundation plans to play a major role in laying ''the groundwork for a continuation of peace,'' said Thomas. It is one overriding way to change the world.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.