The Ford Foundation will increase its grant funding by at least 15 percent next year. The current $102 million budget of the organization -- the wealthiest foundation in the country -- will be increased for the first time in eight years with the major portion of the money being earmarked for urban poverty, according to president Franklin Thomas.

Rural poverty, human rights and social justice, education, international economic and political issues, and government and public policy will be the other areas of increased activity, according to a program announced today. The foundation will be decreasing its work in the population field.

There will be, as well, two particular hallmarks of the relatively new Thomas regime: a stress on local self-help groups and an emphasis on bringing business into foundation work.

"It's a time when the resources of many foundations have flattened out, at the same time that there are growing corporate resources," said Thomas, in an interview at Ford headquarters in Manhattan last week. "We want to take steps and wed the foundation world to the appropriate financial sources."

But won't a strong social justice issue program, under an administration in which human rights have not been stressed, frighten some businesses?

Thomas' answer is barely more than the smile of a tough diplomat.

"It might," he said.

Successor to McGeorge Bundy, who served as head of the foundation for 13 years, Thomas took office in June 1979. He was a strong believer in small, community-based development -- a lawyer known for his efforts to restore Brooklyn's Bedford-Stuyvesant, the neighborhood where he was born. "A marvelous choice," said his predecessor.

In recent months, however, there has been concern in the foundation world over the course of action being pursued by Thomas. Some Ford staffers felt that he was taking an unusually long time to formulate his program, and other members of the foundation community gossiped that morale, under leadership where the future was unclear, was low.

Ford trustees, however, including Harriet Raab, an assistant dean at Columbia, insisted that Thomas was "right on schedule." Another trustee, speaking off the record, conceded that morale was somewhat low but that "some anxiety was normal during a transition." She also echoed Raab's feelings that Thomas was proceeding as planned. "He said he wouldn't have a direction for the '80s for two years, and he's right on target," she said.

This week, after presentation to the board, the program was formally announced. There was not a specific breakdown of where the money would go -- that budget will be announced in June. But Thomas did present his six areas of concentration and announce the appointment of two program vice presidents.

In an interview, he reiterated the foundation's commitment to human rights, and stressed the importance of grass-roots involvement under the foundation's Local Initiative Corp., created last year. And though he dodged the question of which programs were his ideas ("We all interact") and which were his pets, it was clear that community involvement was an issue about which he felt strongly.

"I don't like macro-planning," Thomas said, "large-scale, regional, national projects -- a huge water project, a huge housing project -- that often obcures reality and tends to get very little done. I'd rather go to the heart of a neighborhood. . . ."

In the past, as head of the Bedord-Stuyvesant Restoration Program, Thomas evolved a method of almost forcibly involving people in community projects.

"We went in right after the riots, and we knew the community needed housing and we knew they needed jobs. We also wanted to do something concrete. . . . The long vision is fine, but we wanted results, something you could put your hand on," he said.

"We organized the neighborhood into block associations -- you had to sign up at least 60 percent of your block to qualify. We hired teen-agers and trained them to work on the housing, and we also had a requirement -- that if we spent, say, $500 in work on the outside of your house, that you had to make a commitment to spend an equivalent amount on the inside." t

At the Ford Foundation, under the Local Initiative Corp., there have been similar neighborhood projects.

A group of women on welfare in California needed to find day care, and the foundation, going into an area where housing had been abandoned, helped finance renovation of buildings, setting up facilities for day care and a system under which women who worked in day care could live in the buildings at minimal rent. "That both created income and got a number of people who were on the welfare rolls gainfully employed," he said.

He also recalled a village in Maine in which the fisherman had no local facility to store or process their catch and were losing money.

"It was a situation where if they caught a lot of fish, the price went down, and if the catch was low, they had no income," said Thomas. "It was also an area where there was low employment. We helped them finance a freezing and processing operation. It created jobs for several people. The cost of fish, to the consumer, wasn't affected, it just brought the income closer to home."

This all sounds, it is suggested, somewhat like an indictment of government hand-out programs.

Thomas, always the diplomat, resists the bait.

"I tend not to think in terms of indictments," he said.