Remembering Franklin Thomas
In a difficult year, in which the world struggled to break free from the grip of Covid-19, only to be set back by a new variant, the news of Franklin Thomas’ death came like a sock to the gut. Many will remember Franklin Thomas as the president of Ford Foundation, fewer will realize that he was the first Black foundation president in America, but I knew him as my boss and mentor.
When “Frank” as we called him, was first hired to lead the Ford Foundation in 1979, he took the reins from McGeorge Bundy, an emblematic white leader who was the quintessential representative of what came to be known as “the best and the brightest.” Frank, on the contrary, came from a struggling, working-class, immigrant family in Brooklyn, reached unimaginable heights in his career, but never forgot from where he came. Today, institutions are competing to hire BIPOC leaders, but in 1979, Ford Foundation’s choice was nothing other than radical. Organizations do not change overnight because of their leader, and Frank had to dig deep to produce lasting transformation. In what became known as “The Mother’s Day Massacre,” he completely overhauled the leadership of the organization and had to endure legal challenges and widespread criticism as a result. However unpopular those decisions might have been at the time, it is difficult to imagine the Ford Foundation of today without the decisive action he took back then.
I was hired to work for Ford Foundation in 1991 as a program officer in Brazil, when Frank was still President. Frank spoke to our orientation class as we watched a film that Ford had funded depicting Black stereotypes in American media. There was never any doubt in our minds that diversity was a top priority for the Ford, however difficult, and that never left us for the rest of our lives. Soon thereafter, my direct boss, Joan Dassin, became regional director for Latin American and the Caribbean, based in New York, and I was promoted to take her place. I still remember Frank and his then-vice president, Susan Berresford, visiting Rio de Janeiro to give me the news. Frank, as only he could, said he wanted to promote me to become representative, and that there would be no negotiating the salary in one sentence, all with a smile on his face. Negotiate, I did not.
On that same trip Frank and Susan took to Brazil, we had organized a series of events and workshops so that they could meet grantees and understand the challenging transition Brazil was undergoing from dictatorship to democracy. I distinctly remember one blue ribbon panel of policy elites in which the secretary of the sponsoring organization, who came from Brazil’s historically discriminated Northeast, looked at Franklin Thomas and Susan Beresford, and said: “Do you mean to tell me that man and that woman are the two most powerful people in the Ford Foundation? I can’t tell you how proud I am to be a grantee!” Ford Foundation had a history of working on issues of racial discrimination in Brazil. There was nothing that communicated it more than the choice of Franklin Thomas as President of what was then the largest philanthropic foundation on the planet. That choice also made possible Ford’s steadfast support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and Frank’s personal friendship with Nelson Mandela.
Frank was a towering physical presence and gifted storyteller that led the staff with a rare combination of authority and grace. He would gather us in the auditorium at 320 East 43rd Street after each board meeting and always have an inspiring story that reminded us of why we were all there. At officers’ meetings, in which grants would be presented and reviewed, he always had the last word, and “newbies” who had not yet been fully acculturated quickly learned that after Frank wrapped up the meeting, there was nothing more to be said. It was a style of leadership that might not work as well in the world of today, but it was tremendously effective in the Ford Foundation of that era. Frank was a gentle giant whom we loved and respected, while fearing ever so slightly.
In the final days of my own career in philanthropy as I prepare to leave Candid on December 31, there are two things I keep coming back to about Frank’s leadership. The first is something that perplexed me at the time, which I have come to understand more and more through the years. When I joined Ford Foundation, Frank was in the final years of a long career there and invariably his conversations would turn to the financial health of the foundation. At the time I remember pondering why he didn’t talk more about our mission, but as I close out my time at Candid, I have found myself doing the same thing. When you lead an important institution, you increasingly realize the responsibility you have to guarantee its future. The second is something I shared in my last formal report to the Candid board of directors. When Frank passed the presidential baton to Susan Berresford in 1996, he told her, “The nature of the job will reveal itself to you.” No matter how much you prepare, how thorough the interview process, the job you end up doing as President will be different than the one you signed up for. In a Zen-like way, history, people, circumstance, politics, luck, and fate combine to determine the job as it is lived, rather than imagined.
I fought very hard to join Ford Foundation. Turned down twice, it was only the third time that I was finally hired. Looking back, I am glad that I refused to take “no” for an answer. Though I could not have known it at the time, all that persistence led me inexorably to the opportunity to work for Franklin Thomas, a leader who change my life… forever.