Evans traded the uniform of Juliette Low for the cloak of Clara Barton.
Fri, May 13, 2005
Marsha J. Evans Coming To The Rescue
Is trouble her middle name? From the Girl Scouts to the American Red Cross, the unsinkable Marsha J. Evans has a reputation for coming to the rescue.
This story first appeared in May/June 2005
Some people work their way up the ranks. Others happen to be in the right place at the right time. Some—not many—do both. Retired Navy Rear Adm. Marsha J. ("Marty") Evans is one of the lucky few.
Prior to taking over the troubled helm of the 37,000-employee American Red Cross in 2002 and restoring the organization to pre-9/11 levels of public confidence, Evans spent four and a half years guiding the Girl Scouts of America back on course. Her preparation for these challenging turnarounds? A distinguished 29-year career in the U.S. Navy.
Evans was the first woman to command a naval base and the second to become an admiral. She led the Naval Academy's first-ever equal-opportunity program for male and female midshipmen, and chaired the Navy's investigation into its notorious Tailhook scandal. Through all this rough water, Evans has remained an atypical CEO who eschews the privileges of rank—"unless it can help me get a good table in a restaurant," she jokes, "which it seldom does"—and gushes to her staff at Red Cross headquarters that her ride with President Bush on Air Force One was "really neat."
When the Girl Scouts' board of directors sought out Evans in 1998, they knew that her Navy tenure had her in charge of million-dollar budgets and hundreds of thousands of employees, and had earned her a reputation for guiding large organizations in their hours of need. The Girl Scouts had hit that hour. Founded in 1912 by Juliette Gordon Low, another woman with little patience for confining female roles, the Girl Scouts were having a late-life identity crisis in the hip-hop era. Membership and fund-raising were down, and the Girl Scouts had both image and relevance problems.
Evans explains. "The challenge was to take an organization that was set in its ways and rev it up to make it more exciting and engaging—and more available for girls who didn't live in the suburbs. We established girl scouting in public housing and set up innovative programs for girls with mothers in prison and girls who were in juvenile detention facilities; reached out for Spanish-speaking leaders and scouts; and, for older girls, jazzed up the uniforms and put in new programs." By the end of Evans' tenure, the Girl Scouts of America had posted record numbers: 3 million scouts, almost 1 million volunteers and contributions up more than 20 percent.
When the Red Cross tapped Marsha Evans as its president and CEO, The New York Times reported, "Ms. Evans, 54, will take charge of an organization whose reputation suffered badly after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, when its administration of donations and unwillingness to collaborate with other nonprofit groups drew criticism from donors, victims and government officials." Asked to comment, the optimistic Evans told the Times: "That's the past. I prefer to look forward."
The Red Cross conducts polls quarterly, and recent ones put public confidence at 83 percent, higher than before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. Her newly revamped fund-raising policies paid big dividends when the tsunami hit Southeast Asia on Dec. 26, 2004. By late January, the Red Cross announced that donors no longer needed to earmark their contributions: The goal of $1.2 billion for the entire tsunami relief effort had been reached in less than a month.
"The Red Cross had withstood the challenge of providing service to the country for almost a century and a quarter," she says, "but it had been through the double whammy of 9/11 and the recession. The job was how to help the Red Cross adapt to the new reality of terrorism, expanding disaster relief services, the challenges of modernizing the entire blood operation, and rebuilding the Red Cross for the 21st century."
People familiar with Evans' previous life in the Navy are not surprised by her success in the nonprofit sector. In 1968, a newly accepted Ph.D. candidate in Asian Studies at both Michigan and Columbia, Evans took a weekend break to visit friends in California. "On Saturday night," she recalls, "while leafing through a copy of The Oxnard Press Courier, I saw a picture of a woman Navy officer from a nearby base. 'Hmm,' I said, 'I never thought about that.'" The rest is, literally, U.S. Naval history.
In 1973, when the Navy, which had paid for Evans' Ph.D., removed its 2 percent cap on women officers and began to give them nontraditional assignments as "test cases," the ambitious young woman was very well-positioned. "I became the second-in-command at an all-male boot camp in San Diego, so that was definitely a nontraditional assignment." Evans' first command was at the Naval Training Center in San Francisco; after that, she went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., where she was in charge of "one-sixth of the midshipmen." Next was a stint at the National War College, followed by her assignment as base commander in San Francisco. "I could have retired sooner," she says, "but I just kept getting these incredible jobs."
Now that the scope of her latest "incredible job" has been substantially expanded by the proliferation of global disasters, both natural and man-made, there are days when Evans misses the comparatively regular regimen of her life in the Navy. With half of her time spent traveling around the states and the rest of the world, there's no such thing as a typical day. "I wish there were," she laughs. "We're either preparing for or responding to disasters—or doing both at the same time. Right now, we're responding to the tsunami, but we're also focusing on next summer's hurricanes and also the California wildfires, while being ready for anything in between."
Echoing the late Thomas P. "Tip" O'Neill, a man who knew a lot about dealing with problems, Evans says, "One thing I've learned here at the Red Cross is that every disaster is local and involves different communities, so that the response must also be individual and different."
Put those last two words together, add effective and accomplished, and you've got Marty Evans.