East Central Catfish Operations went belly up, but that is one of the relatively few failures in a Ford Foundation program that was a major innovation in philanthropy when it was begin nine years ago.

Foundations traditionally have invested their funds in conventional enterprises in order to earn the maximum secure income. Then they have given away that income.

The 1968 Ford idea was to provide some venture capital for commercial enterpises that would provide a "high social yield" but which conventional Jending institutions would find too risky.

Over the years, Ford's Program-Related Investments have accepted as collateral such untraditional assets as 1 per cent of an unproduced musical (which happened to end up being the smash hit "A Chorus Line): a percentage of an organization's forthcoming fund-raising drive, and a promise from one group to repay when a governor's veto of government financing can be overcome.

Eagmon M. Kelly, the officer in charge of Program-Related Investments, said that many of the initial loans were made at very low interest rates to fledgling businesses like the Catfish operation in Hancock County, Georgia, which got a 10-year loan at 5 per cent.

The Catfish operation failed when other industries upstream diverted so much water from the river for their uses that the water flow became insufficient to keep the fish alive.

The overall loss rate in nine years, however, has been 9 per cent, which Ford officials find acceptable.

Losses have been lower, Kelly said, in the last four years, during which Ford has usually invested in financial intermediaries rather than businesses themselves and thereby relieved itself of having to attempt to judge the viability of businesses of all types.

"We're not taking as many fliers," Kelly said.

In recent years, Program-Related Investments' loans also have been made at interest rates much closer to the market rate, Kelly said.

His program pays Ford's treasurer 8 per cent for any money it receives. If it does not get 8 per cent or better from its customer, the difference comes from the foundation's budget for grant assistance.

No investments are made unless the foundation's officers decide the loan applicant will use the money for a purpose they find compatible with the foundation's aims.

Each applicant is evaluated by an outside consultant and then must have his or her application approved by the foundation's Internal Investment Committee.

Ford rarely provides all the funding an enterprise needs, but takes a part of the financing and by its presence often encourages private-sector lenders to give an applicant more serious consideration.

The foundation's investments since January, 1974, have been about $14.8 million and represent about 19 per cent of the funding of projects with a total capitalization of $76 million.

The projects have included construction of an office and shopping complex in one of New York City's poorest areas. Bedford-Stuyvesant, and a loan to permit renovation of the Delacourt Theater in New York's Central Park.

The theater loan will be repaid either from a fund-raising drive or from the pledged security of "A Chorus Line." The Brooklyn Academy of Music got Ford to guarantee a loan by pledging receipts from three parking lots it operates. Traditional lending institutions were wary of the loan because the city owns the parking lots and, in theory, could take them away from the academy.

Ford also continues to make some high-risk loans to minority enterprises.

It provided $1 million of a $3 million refinancing for Freedom National Bank, New York's only black-controlled commercial bank.

Kelly said the amount was too big for the financial intermediaries through whom Ford considered that the collapse of an important Harlem Lender like Freedom would have consequences so serious it was worth a consideration risk to attempt to aid the bank.

Since its beginning. The program has approved $2 investments totally almost $54 million. About $35 million is currently approved or disbursed.

A number of other foundations quickly followed Ford into the investment field by forming the Cooperative assistance Fund, which has $3.3 million committed or outstanding.

Six other foundations have also begun separtae investment programs, although all are much smaller than Ford's, to which a revolving fund of $50 million is committed.

More than 130 banks, businesses and other foundations have joined Ford as co-investors in the kind of socially significant enterprises that have been selected by the foundation's program officers.