Frances Hesslebein Interview by Linda Felstein

On January 15, 1998 Frances Hesselbein received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. At the time, President Clinton who presented the Medal, described Mrs. Hesselbein “as a pioneer for women, diversity, and inclusion.” She has exemplified her beliefs through her illustrious service, which has spanned several decades. Formerly, she served as Chief Executive Officer of Girl Scouts of the U.S.A. from 1976-1990, and presently serves as Chairman and Founding President of the Leader to Leader Institute, formerly known as the Peter F. Drucker Foundation for Nonprofit Management.

I met Mrs. Hesselbein on a brisk January morning in 2008, the week of the ten-year anniversary of her award. As I walked through her office door, the passionate tenacity of this woman was palpable. Gracious and dynamic, with a no-nonsense disposition, she delved right into our meeting. In measured tones laced with undercurrents of urgency, she discussed her thoughts about the state of philanthropy today and her hope in future generations of philanthropists.

Q: As we approach the 10-year anniversary of your receiving the Presidential Medal of Freedom, how do you reflect on the progress of the third sector and your involvement in philanthropy?

A: 1998 was a different world, gone forever. I believe who you are and how you live your life defines you. On one hand, I see how contemporary women have progressed by not seeing ourselves in a category. For instance, I don’t see myself as a “woman leader,” but rather a “leader who is a woman.” This generation has embraced that paradigm. On the other hand, I have experienced during this ten-year period the highest level of cynicism and lowest level of trust. This is one of the reasons why I travel nationally twice a week conducting speaking engagements. I have hope in college and university students. This generation is less cynical and has more hope. This cohort is different from the previous one.

The need is greater than ever before to address the disparities within the nation. Greater progress is based on providing access to eliminate disparities. Look at what is happening to our children: fifty percent of minority children in this nation do not obtain a high school diploma; seventy percent of impoverished children in the nation do not obtain a high school diploma; and thirty percent of all children drop out before getting one. How can this nation sustain democracy if we do not educate our children? Now more than ever, there is a sense of urgency to address social issues. That is why a third of my time is spent speaking at non-profit organizations, a third at corporations, and a third at universities. In addition, I fly to three international countries each year.

Q: Based on your experiences with philanthropic endeavors internationally, particularly in developing nations, do you find differences between non-profit organizations/NGOs here and abroad?

A: Everyone has the same bottom line – changing lives and how to raise money to serve the needs that should be met. There are 26 million non-profits worldwide with only 5% adequately funded. So whether you are dealing with emerging democracies, you need to raise funds for the social sector to meet a need. The social sector has the greatest success in meeting social needs. Government support is diminishing. They are sloughing services they used to provide to businesses and philanthropy. That is why it is so important for business and philanthropy to be partners.

Q: What is the greatest challenge for fundraisers/development officers?

A: The question is “How do you sell this story and reach people?” For instance, in this country, children unable to read by third grade have a higher possibility of becoming incarcerated. It takes $130,000 to $180,000 to keep children incarcerated. Too many Americans see these kids as “our invisible children.” John W. Gardner stated that “We look at them with comfortable indifference,” if we even see them. So we (fundraisers) need to see what can be done becoming more aware and committed. We need 100 more foundations like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. College students should adopt a school and mentor a child. Enormous resources need to be poured into children to keep them in school and cut the drop-out rate. This amount is negligible in comparison to building prisons. Democracy cannot be sustained without providing significant opportunities for disadvantaged groups.

Q: What would you say to graduate students about to embark on a career in fundraising?

A: You can make the greatest difference because philanthropy has the greatest opportunities and success in meeting social needs. This generation is different from earlier cohorts. You will have the greatest impact and difference. Ten years from now when they write of you it will be said, “The future called; they responded; they kept the faith.” Twenty years from now it will be said “Once again, the greatest generation.” I fervently believe through observing this generation that you do not believe in a “comfortable indifference.” This generation sees these are our children and country and we will make a difference. That is why I find hope in students today.


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