After James Joseph was rescued from a plane crash near Guam three years ago, he remembers, he began thinking about the meaning of his life. "I came out of that feeling that I was saved for a purpose. Going through that experience, I felt a sense of inner calm after a real sense of fear. It may be that psychologically there's a fear beyond which you cannot go. I was surprised I could function effectively after that experience," says Joseph.

Here was a man who as a divinity student had studied the lessons of saintly sacrifice at Yale, who as a teacher had faced the anonymous menace of the Ku Klux Klan in Tuscaloosa, who as a college chaplain and antiwar activist on a California campus during Ronald Reagan's terms as governor had calmed angry student protesters. Unexpectedly, here he was nearly drowning in the Pacific, in his supposedly safe job as under secretary of the interior under Jimmy Carter, learning a lesson about priorities.

Now, Joseph talks easily about destiny as he discusses his appointment as the new president of the Council on Foundations. It is destiny, and considerable experience in the foundation world, that brought him to this critical job. But it's the strongheadedness and calm that he has shown in other situations that will be needed to direct the discussion of social responsibility in the 1980s.

"I think that the whole debate about the role of the public sector and the private sector is really a debate about the nature of the social contract between a society and its people," he says. Joseph, 46, a handsome, outgoing black man with a spray of freckles and a deep, private laugh, was selected out of 200 candidates to run the umbrella group of 966 grant-making foundations. His background in foundation issues and administration -- he has been president of the Cummins Engine Foundation and of two other independent foundations -- and his work as the second-ranking official at Interior from 1977 to 1981 garnered him this job. Currently Joseph is a vice president of the Cummins Engine Company. He will start his new job on March 1.

This position is another pathfinding experience for Joseph, who has made his mark in occupations traditionally overlooked by blacks. The black achievers of the pre-1960s, locked into education, medicine, and the ministry, often became known to other blacks as "race men" because they attached the fight for social justice to every aspect of their lives. Since then, opportunities have opened up in entirely different professions, but many "race men" still keep minority interests foremost, often finding they have to build the bridge backwards to the black community. Joseph, who is married with two teen-agers, is a prime example.

Out of James Joseph's office will come much of the new debate over the responsibility for social policy. He calls it a "special moment in the life of the American people." He wants the foundations to continue what he considers their traditional role as catalyst, the public sector to continue tackling the large programs, and the profitmaking part of the private sector to learn from the successes of its own company-run foundations. "I am concerned about the way they conduct business in their normal activities in the private sector. The decisions about where they decide to locate a plant can mean economic development for a community or it can mean the demise of a neighorhood," says Joseph. What he would like to see in the private sector is a "Consciousness Two Phase" of the corporate-responsibility push of the late 1960s. But he also believes the discussion about the role of the private sector is creating unrealistic expectations.

'Little Need for Optimism' --

Since 1969 the birth rate of foundations has declined, while the death rate has increased. Lately the seesaw of government involvement has swung radically, with the private sector being urged by the government to fill the canyons left by the federal budget cuts. Although the number of requests for grants has increased, a study of 400 corporations found that only 6 percent are considering raising their charitable contributions, and it is generally felt that changes in the tax laws eliminate much of the economic incentive to do so. Looking back to Lyndon Johnson's similar plea for corporate contributions to charity, Joseph says, "Once again we have a president who is making an attempt to do that, and . . . I hope there will be an increase of foundations and corporations in meeting social needs, but given the history there is little need for optimism."

At least one critic of foundations is already praising Joseph's leadership. "It's almost unbelievable that the Council on Foundations would choose such a forward-thinking person," says Robert Bothwell, the executive director of the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.

The Responsibilities of Race -

Joseph's initiation into the pleasures and pains of social responsibility came in his hometown of Opelousas, La., where his father is a minister. "I'm basically a social change agent. Though I have served as a senior officer in a multinational corporation, though I have served as a senior official in the federal government, my basic commitments are the same -- to improving the lives of people," he says.

At times during his life he sought out the nontraditional; at other points, he came across it through pure accident. When he went into the Army after studying at Southern University, he worked in the medical service corps -- "I wanted to learn something different." Later, in 1956, he worked as a reception officer for Hungarian refugees. Years later, when he was approached by the Carter administration, he insisted on an assignment that was not a "black job." "Rather than just be seen as an expert on black people . . . but I also made it clear that my commitment to the black community was such that this would be an essential part of what I did," he says.

That dual role -- setting new standards in nontraditional jobs while continuing to fulfill what he feels to be the responsibilities of race -- creates its own tension. "It can be lonely because I have often fought struggles that were not highly visible," he says, still chagrined that he found it hard to explain to the traditional black leadership their stake in participating in government-run projects such as cleaning up the Outer Continental Shelf.

In his own efforts at foundations, Joseph achieved several successes with minority businesses -- for example, getting them to make small grants to a voter education project that Joseph was also encouraging to start a business. The blue jeans factory that grew out of that project is now the largest black firm in the South. He was also instrumental in developing minority leadership through grants, such as the one given Ivanhoe Donaldson, Mayor Marion Barry's close adviser.

That kind of achievement, and Joseph's view of his own destiny, keep him going. When he first went to a Council on Foundations meeting in 1967, only one other black was present. "I was identified with the efforts to expand the scope and constituency of the council in days in which it was very, very difficult. There were a lot of pains in this whole process, there are still a lot of scars in this process, but it has come full circle. Now it has reached a point when they turn to me and invite me to be president. That's what I mean by a sense of destiny."