Franklin Thomas of the Ford Foundation

April 24, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: He’s Franklin Thomas, who has just retired after 12 years as president of the Ford Foundation. Thomas tripled the foundation’s endowment from $2 billion to about $7.7 billion today. Last year alone, Ford awarded more than 2,000 grants worth almost $300 million. As he was preparing to take up work on South Africa and other issues, we spoke with Mr. Thomas about his years at Ford.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Frank Thomas, thank you for joining us.

FRANKLIN THOMAS, Former President, Ford Foundation: Thank you for having me.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What has been the mission of the Ford Foundation traditionally, and how did it change during your 17 years?

FRANKLIN THOMAS: Well, the foundation is a philanthropy created with a broad charter to help improve human welfare in the world, and each successive leadership of a foundation has defined the areas in which the foundation would work in furtherance of that mission. What we’ve tried to do is to elevate the role of the people who are the intended beneficiaries who are also victims of the problem.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The foundation you said was both national or domestic. Did you find that the design that you’ve set up worked for domestic, as well as international? I mean, how does that all play out?

FRANKLIN THOMAS: It was one of the more exciting discoveries, in fact, that many of the approaches that seemed relevant to let’s say a U.S.-based problem also turned out to be relevant to a problem of a developing world.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Give me an example.

FRANKLIN THOMAS: And vice versa. Bangladesh is the often-cited example with the Grameen Bank, where you have saving circles of people who pool their money, then make loans to one member of the group to pursue an economic activity, help support that member during the implementation of this idea, the member pays back, and then another person from the group is able to borrow. Well, that idea, the Grameen Bank, which we and others have helped expand within Bangladesh, is now the reality of micro-credit across the world–Africa, Latin America, parts of Arkansas and Appalachia in this country–very same principles of organized savings, communal support of the investment or economic activity. That’s been something that has known no boundaries because it’s a human condition.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And give me an example of something you’ve learned in America that can be transmitted or transplanted somewhere else.

FRANKLIN THOMAS: I think the Community Development Corporation is a great example. That’s a U.S. phenomenon. Its origin is where people in a given community organize to address the problems of that community and in so doing form partnerships with the business sector, the governmental sector. But at the core of the partnership is the community itself making the basic decisions. That sense of organization and of partnership that really was initiated in the U.S. is now finding expression across the world. So that’s a transplant going in the other direction.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And how did you set your priorities, and what kinds of things did you do that you weren’t doing before?

FRANKLIN THOMAS: I think at the core of the strategic change was a recognition that women were the majority of the world’s population, they were the majority of the world’s poor, and they were the least powerful in terms of decision-making, whether it was within families, communities, governments, or enterprise, and it was our belief that if you could focus your attention on gender inequities, wherever they occurred, and try and help people remove those inequities so that opportunities for women would be equal to those opportunities for men, you would dramatically increase the capacity of the world to address its problems.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How do you measure success in the foundation–I read in one of your statements that you said social change is to foundations what profit is to the corporate world– how do you measure that?

FRANKLIN THOMAS: Well, in a real sense, I think of foundations as the research and development arm of a society. We’re the parts of the society that ought to be taking risks, developing new ideas, backing innovative people and institutions who are pushing new ideas, ideas that are designed to remove inequities, increase opportunities, and lead towards more harmonious relations, whether interpersonal or intergovernmental or globally. I think the emergence of representative governments across the world is one signal that there is a growing sense across the world that participation matters, that the quality of life in any setting is a function almost directly of the degree of engagement people have with that life, of the choices they have, of their opportunity within their society.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What is the thing you feel the proudest about, your biggest success–


CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Or maybe they aren’t the same thing.

FRANKLIN THOMAS: (laughing) I’m–I’m proud of a few things. It’s hard to pick one. One is that the foundation, itself, is healthy and vibrant and able to do increasingly important work going forward. Secondly is to witness the transitions to democracy, particularly in South Africa. If I’ve had one area of sustained personal commitment for years, it’s certainly been–involved South Africa and its transaction. And to see that happen, and to know that there are opportunities to help it cement that political change, are extraordinarily powerful to me.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: You arranged for the first ever meeting between the ANC and the government when the leaders were still in exile. Nelson Mandela was still in prison.

FRANKLIN THOMAS: That’s–as it turns out, that’s correct. It was a weekend meeting out at the conference center on Long Island, and it was the first ever meeting between members of the ANC in exile and some people close in to the South African government and the Brudaban, and it was a meeting the results of which included week-long contact between the ANC and members of the Afrikaner community, each of which felt that their lives and mission had been changed in a meaningful way by that contact.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And how many years later was it that–

FRANKLIN THOMAS: It’s just about four years later that Nelson Mandela was freed and these negotiations began, and the resultant elections in 1994, so that’s a period of quite extraordinary experience for me.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Finally, you’ve had a unique vantage point from which to look at this country and the world. As you look at the state of the world today, how do you feel about it? Are you optimistic, are you pessimistic? How do you feel about the world?

FRANKLIN THOMAS: Well, I’m–maybe by nature–an optimist, so I remain optimistic about the world. I think that we have evolved to a point where we have defined what’s worthy of communication as equal to controversy. And if there isn’t controversy, we tend to think it isn’t worthy of communication, so it’s much more difficult to communicate those things that are working and working well than it is to be aware of our shortcomings as a people, as a nation, as a world. At the core of everything I know about life are the very basic simple messages we all learned as kids, and that includes do unto others as you would have done unto you. It is one of the simplest, most fundamental truths about life. It’s what anchors the human rights movement in the world. It’s what anchors a belief in democratic systems. It’s what anchors an opportunity- driven society. What we’re struggling with is how best to do that with entrenched interest, feeling threatened, and those on the rise feeling that they aren’t being able to rise as fast as their talents would allow. We’re struggling with the very process of democracy and opportunity. And I’d say to you that’s a struggle that’s going to go on forever. What we need are additional perspectives from which to understand that struggle so that we aren’t led to despair by the headlines.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, Frank Thomas, thank you for joining us.

FRANKLIN THOMAS: Charlayne, thank you for having me.