Planned Parenthood's Feldt Looks Back

Gloria Feldt's sudden departure from the helm of Planned Parenthood seemed timed to 2004 presidential election fatigue. But in-house struggles, including one over a contraceptive procurement plan, may have been the real tipping point.

Gloria Feldt

(WOMENSENEWS)-“Gloria's Blog” on the Web site of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America ends abruptly with its last entry on Jan. 25. In it, the organization's president skewered “anti-choice ideologues” and challenged the Senate to pass the “Prevention First Act” in order to improve contraceptive access.

Two days later, in a move that surprised even some Planned Parenthood leaders connected to the 84-year-old organization, Feldt departed after eight years in the position with only a crisp announcement from Board President La Don Love. The blog ends without so much as a goodbye.

The anti-choice Bush administration poses a roster of obstacles to the chief executive of PPFA. “Ding Dong, The witch is gone!!” crowed a heading on, an anti-choice list, one of many that furiously oppose Planned Parenthood, which is, for millions of women, the first stop for contraceptive and other health services.

But the more daunting task may be governing the organization-the 13th largest nonprofit in the country, according to The NonProfit Times-which has dual health and advocacy missions and 122 affiliates, located in every state and Washington, D.C.

“It was challenging. Very, very hard,” Feldt said in a wide-ranging interview with Women's eNews. “I love to work hard. I'm proud of what I was able to accomplish. I had a better ride than my predecessors; definitely, without a question.”

Doubled Budget

Between 1996, the year she took over, and 2004, Feldt doubled the budget of the national office to $68.1 million (affiliates raised an additional $752 million), consolidated its political muscle and initiated a strategy known as “Power the Promise,” a strategy to build capacity, including social marketing, policy initiatives, enhanced technology, international work and contraceptive access.

But internal disputes, compounded by an awkward governing structure, created hardships, according to those familiar with the organization.

“The slings and arrows can be pretty sharp,” said Feldt. “The curse of progressive organizations is that it craves leadership and it kills it.”

Interim President Karen Pearl would not comment on whether the board had asked Feldt to leave, saying personnel matters are confidential. Feldt only said that she wants to “speak more in her own voice” and to spend time traveling with her husband.

Feldt was an insider when she became president in 1996 after four years of leadership crises following the departure of Faye Wattleton, the previous long-term president with 14 years of service.

“I really was the right person at the right time,” said Feldt, who had headed two southwestern affiliates.

Strains on Internal Support

Internal disagreements with some affiliates, however, put strains in her organizational support. Differences arose over a plan to create a long-term supply of reasonably-priced birth control pills for the 850 Planned Parenthood clinics. Contraception is a major element of Planned Parenthood services, with 2.25 million clients for contraception in 2003, compared to 244,000 who obtained abortions (slightly more than 10 percent).

Previously, Feldt oversaw the development of a Planned Parenthood branded condom and a pregnancy test. However, a schism developed on how to approach “the pill project.” Some large affiliates wanted to expand their own enterprise for the bulk-discount purchasing of oral contraceptives. Affiliates are independently incorporated and carry a geographical name, such as “Planned Parenthood of the Texas Capital Region.” They must raise their own funds, as well as meet national medical and operational standards. Affiliate representatives are also the major players on the national board.

Feldt and others envisioned national control of the pill project and a possible manufacture of a Planned Parenthood brand pill.

“People give you money because you do exciting things. My strong suit is to begin a program and to make it happen,” said Feldt.

While Feldt succeeded in establishing a national Contraceptive Enterprise Council-to carry out her aims-the process created rifts.

Said Feldt: “Was there internal strife? Yes. Did it get resolved? Yes. Does it exhaust a president? Yes.”

Tense Feelings at Post-Election Summit

According to sources, tensions simmered through a national “summit” shortly after the election, when spirits were already low.

In 2004, Feldt oversaw the first-ever endorsement of a presidential candidate, supporting Democrat John Kerry, which, according to Pearl, had broad support within the organization. The Planned Parenthood Action Fund, which Feldt also headed, raised $7 million for pro-choice election efforts and a separate Planned Parenthood political action committee raised $700,000 to support political campaigns, said Feldt.

By the time Feldt departed two months later, in January, tensions apparently reached the point of no return.

Interim Director Pearl downplayed a rift over the pill project and said that the Contraceptive Enterprise Council will continue. “Will there be a Planned Parenthood pill? Maybe. It's something we have to work out.”

Labyrinth for Next CEO

The council is one of many related entities that create a labyrinth for the next CEO to oversee.

The national office consists of 300 employees in New York and Washington, D.C., as well as international divisions in Bangkok, Nairobi and Miami that work in 26 countries. It also has a celebrity council that connects well-known personalities with Planned Parenthood events, including the March for Women's Lives last April.

Another division, Global Partners, links affiliates with women's health care programs overseas and a special associate relationship exists with the Alan Guttmacher Institute, a New York research and policy organization. In addition, Planned Parenthood is allied with separately incorporated political entities.

“I believe you have to have a strong pro-choice political agenda, or you get your fingers nibbled off one by one,” said Feldt.

During her tenure, Feldt encouraged affiliate activism. She shaped the national office to offer expanded expertise in-house to affiliates on law, marketing and medical training. A single Web portal for all Planned Parenthood entities is opening and TeenWire and other new sites reach out to Planned Parenthood's constituency.

Interim President Pearl is now initiating the search process for a permanent replacement, expected to last a year or longer. The position carries an annual salary of approximately $300,000.

“There should be ‘hazardous duty' pay,” quipped Feldt.

Planned Parenthood will honor Feldt at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., on April 14 with the Margaret Sanger Award, named after its founder. The event may serve as the send-off that Gloria's blog is missing.

“In the realm of happy surprises was the love that people everywhere have for Planned Parenthood,” recalled Feldt. “In speaking appearances, I would get up to speak and the Planned Parenthood roar goes up. I call it ‘the Planned Parenthood roar,' and it's a wonderful thing. It keeps you going in the hard times.”

Cynthia L. Cooper is an independent journalist in New York who writes frequently about reproductive health and rights.

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