Gloria Feldt: Take Risks and Build Big for Social Change

Talking to Gloria Feldt is like talking to someone who has been through just about everything as a feminist leader, and yet somehow still finds the strength to tackle ongoing social and political challenges. The word unstoppable comes to mind.

gloria feldt
Gloria Feldt, Founder of Women Take the Lead and former Executive Director of Planned Parenthood Federation of America from 1996 to 2005.

In 1996, People Magazine captured her phenomenal early career in a story called  The Voice of Experience. Indeed. And Feldt has just the kind of experience we like to talk about here at Philanthropy Women: experience that mobilizes funding for big visions.

Feldt married her high school sweetheart at age 15 and had 3 children by the time she was 20. She began her professional career as a Head Start teacher for five years, and went back to school as a young mother. In the process of writing a paper for a science class, Feldt chose to profile the local Planned Parenthood affiliate in West Texas, interviewing the local President, nurse practitioners, and board members.

Two weeks later she got a call from the President who said, “I’m leaving. I think you should submit a resume.” Feldt figured she would interview just for the learning experience. She had no background in organizational leadership, so she thought of the interview mostly as an opportunity to learn about the job search process.

“I went for an interview, got called back for a second, was offered the job on the spot. I accepted on the spot.”

After breaking out in hives every day for the first month from the stress, Feldt realized that she had found her calling. She remembers thinking clearly: “This is something I like to do.” As a young mother, she had already experienced taking on a lot of responsibility with little resources, and leading Planned Parenthood seemed like a similar challenge in some ways.

Mobilizing the Resources to Make Your Ideas Happen

The ability to articulate your ideas and then mobilize the resources to bring them to fruition is the secret sauce of leadership that many in the philanthropy world seek. Feldt discovered early how much she enjoyed this formula for effective leadership, and found that she had a knack for it. “I liked being able to see the big picture, have an idea, and then mobilize the resources necessary to make that idea happen.”

At the West Texas Planned Parenthood, Feldt realized she had the skills to make big things happen, growing the number of clinics quickly in her time there. She then took that formula and practiced it on the state scale, becoming CEO of the Arizona affiliate for 17 years, and ultimately she became the national CEO for Planned Parenthood from 1996 to 2005.  Over the course of her career and on increasingly larger stages, Feldt continuously evaluated the big picture and mobilized resources for big action.

“It was exciting. I later came to call it ‘having a CEO brain’ and I believe much of it is learnable, but there are some who have more of it than others,” said Feldt. She described an essential feature of the CEO brain as a willingness to take on any level of responsibility in order to have the ability to make a difference.

“It involves risk-taking,” said Feldt, and emphasized that she was fortunate to be able to start with a small affiliate for Planned Parenthood, so that she was able to start taking risks at a level she could handle. “The more you do it, the more you gather your strength.”

Feldt found success is envisioning and carrying out plans to grow Planned Parenthood’s services. In the 4 years that she headed he small affiliate in West Texas, it grew from 5 to 11 clinics.

That success led to her being recruited to run the Arizona state affiliate. “If I were to tell you the best job I ever had, that was it,” she said.

In Arizona, the Planned Parenthood affiliate had adopted a very ambitious strategic plan. Feldt credits her naiveté for buying into the plan before realizing “they had no money to do it,” but once she got started there, they were able to raise the money to carry out the plan.

In Arizona as CEO of the state affiliate for Planned Parenthood, Feldt oversaw the growth of services from 3 to 16 clinics.

Networking was an important springboard for Feldt from the state level to the national level. “As I grew the affiliate, I became involved in national level committees. I chaired the Affiliate Chief Executive council, and served on the national board, and that’s how people got to know me. In every community, there’s only one Planned Parenthood CEO. It can be very lonely. That’s why it’s important to have those networks.”

In terms of Feldt choosing to pursue the role of CEO of the national federation, it seems that this was more a case of the role choosing her. “I did not actively seek the national presidency. I frankly had a very nice life in Arizona. But in 1995, I started being heavily recruited.”

“Planned Parenthood had 4 leadership changes in 5 years, and it was bleeding red ink,” said Feldt. “It was the classic best-of-times-worst-of- times scenario. There was a supportive administration in Washington, but at the same time, the organization was not taking advantage of that because of internal issues.”

Feldt said those frequent leadership changes were very disorienting for Planned Parenthood and that funders had begun to lose confidence. “We had lost some big funders. It was also the time when there was the most violence on the local level. There were fire bombs, murders, all kinds of horrible harassments. People were really under siege.” Yet Feldt was able to carry on in the midst of it all. “I learned to deal with that pretty effectively,” she said.

In 2000, Feldt was at the helm of Planned Parenthood when it filed a class action lawsuit in order to force insurers to pay for contraceptives for women.  This Chicago Tribune article from 2000 explains how Feldt and became known as one of the chief architects of contraceptive coverage by insurance.

How did she arrive at the decision to take on this monumental role in the history and well-being of the nation’s women, and, by extension, everyone? “At some point, you have to make a decision to rise to the occasion,” said Feldt. “There was a moment on a suspension bridge in New Zealand when I realized I had to take the leap. It was the right moment. It was the right time.”

“The Bigger the Vision, the More Likely that Vision Will Attract Philanthropic Funds.”

Feldt talked about the importance of leaders, and particularly women leaders in philanthropy, being willing to take risks in order to carry out big plans. “I really want to encourage women to be more open to taking that kind of risk, of putting a big plan out there.”

Feldt said she has observed that, “In many instances, it’s women who will shoot down an idea, because they’re so afraid it’s going to fail. Women would benefit from growing their risk-taking levels and their risk-taking strength.”

But Feldt was also quick to point out that this does not mean every woman  with ambition should run out and try to start their own nonprofit. She thinks it’s important for women to do their research and understand the landscape of any kind of business or philanthropy plan they want to pursue.

“Do a good survey of what already exists in terms of ideas to solve problems. There is an abundance of nonprofits. It’s very wise to make sure that your idea is filling a need that isn’t being filled, or doing something unique. If it is, then you’ll be more likely to raise the money,” said Feldt.

Feldt is excited about what the future holds for the intersection of women’s growing power in the world, and women’s growing power in philanthropy. “As more women own or run businesses, or are in companies that have philanthropic arms, they are in a great position to be able to move resources into organizations that help to advance women and girls,” said Feldt. “As there is more transfer of wealth to women and women are generating their own wealth, philanthropy is becoming increasingly critical.”

Author: Kiersten Marek

Kiersten Marek, LICSW, is the founder of Philanthropy Women. She practices clinical social work and writes about how women donors and their allies are advancing social change.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.