Franklin A. Thomas, the first black president of the philanthropic Ford Foundation, warns that the Reagan administration may be inadvertently sending out ''a terrible message'' to blacks and other minorities that ''concern for human welfare is a drag on the economy.'' This message could have dire social as well as economic reverberations in the long run, he adds.
Mr. Thomas maintains that he and other promiment blacks have hopes that the administration's economic policies, together with what he calls a vast new surge in corporate help for minorities, will result in more jobs and better opportunities for blacks, Hispanics, and others. However, he stresses that the Reagan administration must make it clear that it does care for the less fortunate, and that it is working to help them, even if some minority citizens do not agree with the methods being used.
''The legitimacy of any system over the long haul rests on that system's identification with the aspirations and needs of its people,'' Thomas says. While he is willing to give the administration the benefit of the doubt, he says it is both morally and practically important that this message is straight, so that ''we do not increase the amount of alienation in our society.''
From his perspective of two years as Ford Foundation president, Thomas concludes that there has been mixed progress for blacks in America.
''Some black people in the last decade have clearly seen extraordinary progress and opportunity,'' he says. ''Some black high school graduates are already demonstrating equal opportunity in employment. They now have access to fields that historically were not open, such as banking and finance.''
On the other hand, there has been little progess for many other blacks.
''There is a group within the black community - and I don't know its size - for whom the reality of life in the last 10 years or so has not measurably improved,'' Thomas says. ''And this is clearly the larger of the two groups. The opportunities either have not presented themselves, or when they have, they have not been taken advantage of.'' This is a problem that won't go away without constructive government and private efforts, he says.
Thomas says there are new efforts to stimulate corporate help for blacks, other minorities, and the disadvantaged in general. At a time when many say that corporate giving may decline, Thomas predicts that it will increase steadily from the current $2.3 billion to perhaps as much as $3.5 billion a year by 1985.
He says the gap between what the business and foundations will be giving in the future will widen. Corporate giving surpassed foundation giving in 1980. Thomas believes that some of the increase in corporate giving may be spurred by the new federal tax law which allows companies to give as much as 10 percent (up from 5 percent) of their pretax earnings for charitable causes.
In addition, Thomas claims that private business genuinely wants to help the disadvantaged - if it can be shown that their money is spent on programs that are actually working.
As a case in point, he cites the overwhelming corporate response to the Ford Foundation-spawned Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), which has raised about $25 million from corporations and foundations to help grass-roots neighborhood groups solve all kinds of urban problems.
He affirms that the Ford Foundation will continue an emphasis on urban and rural poverty and human rights both at home and abroad over the next two years, in a move away from some of Ford's traditional funding to the arts and humanities. Budgetary restraints, as well as Thomas's own feeling that the foundation ought to be targeted to more specific goals, solidify this emphasis, he says.
Thomas has come under criticism, partly for his philosophy, from both inside and outside his organization, some of it from Ford executives who have since left the foundation. But he retains the support of the Ford board of directors.
The foundation's total grants have declined from more than $200 million several years ago to $103 million in fiscal year 1980. Because of budgetary restraints and some duplication, the foundation's employment has dropped from more than 1400 three years ago to about 630 worldwide today.
Asked if he thought the civil-rights movement had suffered a blow with the resignation of Vernon Jordan as president of the National Urban League after 10 years, Thomas replied with charactistic calm optimism: ''The void will and obviously can be filled by very able persons in this country, some of whom are known and some of whom are not known. After all, Vernon Jordan was not very well known when he came to the fore.''