Remembering Bob Hull (1932-2021)

The SECF family lost one of its most influential members last month with the passing of Bob Hull, who served as our president and CEO from 1978 until 1997 and inspired the creation of the Hull Fellows leadership development program. He was 88 years old.

“Under Bob’s leadership, SECF went from a young membership association still finding its way to a recognized leader within our region and the American philanthropic landscape,” current president and CEO Janine Lee said. “He became a valuable mentor to me and countless others in Southern philanthropy – that legacy of mentorship will live on for years to come through the Hull Fellows program, which recently celebrated 20 years of leadership development.”

SECF President & CEO Janine Lee shares the stage at the 50th Annual Meeting with her predecessors (left to right) Martin Lehfeldt, Bob Hull and Pete McTier.


Even though Hull retired nearly 25 years ago, he continued to be a regular presence at SECF events and programs until the present day. He and his wife, Shannon, were a regular presence at the Annual Meeting as SECF’s honored guests. His last Annual Meeting would be the 50th Anniversary celebration in Atlanta, which he helped plan as a member of the 50th Anniversary Task Force.

He also played an active role in the Hull Fellows program that bears his name. In recent years, he spoke to each class, both in-person and via webinar, to share his wit and wisdom with the next generation of philanthropic leaders. 


A Transformative Tenure  

Hull, a native Floridian, was hired as SECF’s executive director in 1978, only nine years into the organization’s history. According to The Liberating Promise of Philanthropy: Stories of Grant-Makers in the South, co-authored by Hull’s successor at SECF, Martin Lehfeldt, and Jamil Zainaldin, SECF saw its priorities quickly expand under Hull’s tenure.

SECF’s first decade had been defined by its founding in response to the 1969 Tax Reform Act, the first significant piece of legislation to impose regulations on philanthropy. Early Annual Meeting agendas were dedicated to helping members comply with these new rules – and to resisting new ones. Under Hull’s leadership, this changed considerably.

“The meeting agendas included space for the sharing of management efficiencies and investment options and presentations from experts in education, health care, community development, children and youth issues, elder care concerns, and other community-oriented topics," Lehfeldt and Zainaldin write. “SECF was, to be sure, still a trade association, but it was now marked by an increased emphasis upon the building of a professional ethos.”

Hull was a strong believer in growing philanthropy in the South at a time when the region’s population and wealth were beginning to skyrocket, but charitable assets were not keeping pace. He worked with attorney Jim Hasson to release Why Establish a Private Foundation? and later saw SECF expand its membership criteria to include corporate giving programs. Under Hull’s leadership, SECF also launched its Community Foundation Development Project, with the vision of “every prospective donor and grant-seeker in the South having easy access to the benefits of a community foundation’s services.”

Bob Hull and Martin Lehfeldt celebrate SECF's 30th Anniversary at the 1999 Annual Meeting.


Nearing retirement, Hull reflected on the growth of Southern philanthropy in a column that appeared in SECF’s Interchange newsletter.

“Maybe the most startling thing to me has been the contrast between 1978 and 1997 in the numbers of foundations being established. In those first years, it was almost unheard of for someone to start a private foundation,” he wrote. “What a contrast now! The wealth of the 1980s has coincided with a new interest in organized philanthropy and there is a virtual boom in the foundation field.”

Along with transformations in the field, SECF itself changed greatly under Hull’s leadership. In 1990, working closely with Board Chair Martha Peck and other SECF Trustees, Hull led work on the organization’s first strategic plan. SECF’s staff expanded and moved into offices in the Hurt Building, where it would be based until early 2015. The monthly Interchange newsletter – which would eventually lead to both the Connect email newsletter and Inspiration magazine – launched in 1992. 

Amid all these changes, SECF retained its focus on public policy. Hull testified on Capitol Hill in 1983 as part of a sector-wide effort to reduce the taxes imposed on foundations – this effort paid off when Congress lowered the private foundation excise tax as well as payout requirements.

“Gone are those dismal days of the 70s when we were fighting for the very existence of organized philanthropy,” Hull wrote in his farewell Interchange column. “I am probably biased, but I think that the Southeastern Council has had something to do with that new attitude about philanthropy.”

Hull remained active in the nonprofit field even into retirement, serving on the board of the St. George's Center in Riviera Beach, Florida, and volunteering in support of the center's work, which focuses on providing food, clothing and social support services to local community members in need.

"To St George’s Center, Bob was a guiding light and devoted volunteer," said Dede Lewis, a friend of both Bob and Shanon Hull and a fellow St. George's Center board member. "He shared his organizational knowledge, recruited volunteers, board members and donors. His presence will be greatly missed by the staff, volunteers and all the clients he knew through the years and those of us who were blessed to work with him."


A Lasting Legacy

Not long after Hull’s retirement, the Board sought a way to honor his contributions to SECF and Southern philanthropy. The result was the Hull Fellowship leadership development program.

The 2017-18 Class of Hull Fellows at their spring retreat.


“We knew we wanted something to do with leadership, so I pulled together a committee that would design a new and deep leadership experience specifically for philanthropic leaders,” Bobbi Cleveland, the now-retired executive director of the Tull Charitable Foundation, said in 2015. “We wanted participants to take a break, step back, think about why we do what we do, where philanthropy has come from and where we’re headed.”

Since its creation over 20 years ago, the Hull Fellows program has graduated more than 300 people. More than 30 Hull alumni are now CEOs at SECF member organizations. Hull himself admitted he was surprised by the program’s success and longevity.

“If you had asked me then, I would have said we’d have enough interest to sustain the program for three or four years, then run out of candidates,” he said in 2015. “Obviously, that didn’t happen. It has been an amazing success.”

Bob Hull shares a laugh with a member of the 2019-20 Hull Fellows class at the 50th Annual Meeting.


The Hull program will continue to serve as the most visible embodiment of Bob Hull’s life and legacy, Lee said. 

“Bob embraced change, adapted to it, and welcomed those who were leading it into the SECF family,” Lee said. “There is no more appropriate tribute to his work than a program dedicated to developing the next generation of leaders. As SECF and its members continue to grow and evolve, we owe a debt of gratitude to Bob Hull and his determination to see that Southern philanthropy would thrive well beyond his years.”

SECF members wishing to honor Bob's memory may make a donation to the St. George's Center in Riviera Beach, Florida. The charity, which Bob supported as a volunteer and board member, provides food, clothing and social support services to local residents. Cards and letters may be sent to Shannon Hull, 318 Australian Ave., Palm Beach, FL 33480.


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