An Unplanned Life

A Memoir

A major autobiography of a remarkable life that broke down racial barriers, transformed institutions, and energized the struggle for justice, by the former president of the Ford Foundation

“Frank has that quality of honesty and authenticity and people trusted him . . . and because very disparate people trusted him, he could bring them together across their differences.” —Gloria Steinem

Franklin Thomas was one of the most influential people of our time. As former president of the Ford Foundation (the first African American to hold this position), former president of the Bedford Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation (the first community development organization of its kind), member of countless corporate boards, and a key player in facilitating the end of the apartheid era in South Africa, Thomas shaped public policy, philanthropy, and the movement for human rights for over half a century.

An Unplanned Life offers an insider’s account of some of the most crucial transformations of the contemporary era: efforts to rebuild America’s cities, struggles to reform philanthropy, and the quest to establish a global order based on human rights and racial equity. As a story of firsts, Franklin’s memoir also chronicles a formative era, when a generation of African Americans first broke through into the halls of power, navigating complicated and sometimes treacherous cultural and political currents.

Much of Franklin Thomas’s life was marked by his desire to stay out of the spotlight, and to let his accomplishments speak for themselves. Now, in An Unplanned Life, we have Thomas’s full story, in all of its nuance, drama, and richly narrated detail.


“Thomas achieved an historic sociopolitical impact within the Black community, the United States, and on an international level. . . . Thomas’s extraordinary life, lived in service to community, equality, and basic human rights, will inspire readers to accept the mantle of bettering society.”
Library Journal (starred review)
“Thomas’s narrative is written in exacting detail. . . . This portrait of selfless civic duty will encourage readers to think beyond the limits of their ambitions.”
Publishers Weekly
An Unplanned Life is both a vivid memoir and a rich history of New York—and America—at a critical turning point.”
—Sharon Rockefeller, president and CEO, WETA
“[Thomas’s] vision is of an inclusive America, in which every generation works to see that the promise of America includes ‘more and more of its people, that the American identity be rooted in a person’s willingness to commit to the ideal of America and to work toward its realization.’ That viewpoint alone makes this book worth reading.”
The Washington Post
“In a memoir that privileges the public over the private, Thomas imparts the political, cultural, and economic milieu from which he emerged and the world he indelibly shaped. . . . A vividly detailed record of significant accomplishments.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“Few people can provide a better window into the transformation of modern philanthropy than Frank Thomas. And in doing so, Frank provides us all with essential lessons in ethical leadership.”
—Lee Bollinger, president, Columbia University
“Frank Thomas blazed a path like no other—through government, philanthropy, and civic life. This brilliant memoir perfectly captures the man whose impact on our lives is still felt today.”
—Indra Nooyi, former chair and CEO, PepsiCo

News and Reviews

Washington Post

Read a review of Franklin Thomas’s memoir, An Unplanned Life, in the Washington Post.

Book Excerpt

Read an excerpt from An Unplanned Life to learn more about Franklin Thomas’s tenure as the president of the Ford Foundation.

Library Journal

Read a starred review of An Unplanned Life in Library Journal.

Goodreads Reviews