TRADITIONAL board-room appeals by self-styled "community groups" seeking corporate conscience money can still send sympathetic executives scurrying to their checkbooks -- but for understandable reasons, the mere mention of "urban aid" can also be a room-emptier. Tigher money has meant tighter scrutiny and, in turn, fewer knee-jerk, big-money responses to requests for murkey-purpose grants. Still, help from private corporations remains essential for community development -- and therein lies a refreshing approach by the Ford Foundation.

In a clearheaded assessment, Franklin A. Thomas, the foundation's new president, has concluded that the most effective way to expand the corporate role in cities is by appeals not to "conscience or moral imperatives," but to "pragmatic insticts." Offer businesses "ready-to-go social investment opportunities" for helping to revitalize neighborhoods, Mr. Thomas says, and they tend to be more interested. So far, early returns indicate that he and his organization are onto something.

The foundation and six big private corporations have formed a nonprofit corporation -- with nearly $10 million for starters, about half of it from the businesses -- to assist self-help neighborhood groups with proven records of success in housing, shopping center, industrial park or office building projects. The accent will be on investments in the form of loans below market rate or loan guarantees, along with some modest grants and technical assistance in putting together business deals. Plans call for the selection of 20 groups in various cities at first, and up to 100 in the next five years.

The Local Initiatives Support Corporation (it could have done with a livelier name) boasts some impressive talent: Mr. Thomas is a former director of the Bedford-Stuyvesant Restoration Corporation in New York, which attracted $63 million in outside money and which, under his leadership, established more than 100 businesses with about 3,300 jobs, placed 7,000 residents in training programs and renovated the exteriors of more than 3,300 dwellings with local residents doing the work. Robert D. Lilley, retired president of American Telephone and Telegraph Co., will be chariman of the board, and Mitchell Sviridoff, a Ford Foundation vice president, will serve as executive director.

It is noteworthy, too, that the announcement of this venture was not laced with grandiose predictions of brilliantly overhauled neighborhoods in no time flat. Instead, the premise is more businesslike: "After all," Mr. Thomas has written, "business has a greater comparative advantage as entrepreneur than as conventional philanthropist."