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Brian O'Connell, Co-Founder/President Emeritus, Independent Sector (1930-2011)

March 22, 2011

I was deeply saddened to learn of Brian O'Connell's passing.

Brian_oconnell I first met Brian in 1994, as he was preparing to retire from Independent Sector, the organization he had helped found and served so ably for so many years. In advance of the annual IS conference that fall, Brian was preparing a collection of his writings, to be published by the Foundation Center, and I had been assigned to shepherd the manuscript through the production process. As Brian wrote in the Foreword to that book (People Power: Service, Advocacy, Empowerment), he was pleased that friends and colleagues thought it would be a valuable addition to the literature of the field -- and surprised, as he got into the project, that the pieces "didn't fit, they were repetitious or contradictory, and they revealed very different styles...."

I don't remember much about that summer; it was hot, and Brian spent most of it on his beloved Cape Cod while we toiled away here in the city. We used the phone (landline!) and FedEx to manage the various stages of production, and on the two or three occasions when Brian made it into town, my colleague Rick Schoff and I would join him for lunch at one of the wonderful restaurants in the center's Union Square neighborhood. It was all very civilized.

Which pretty well describes Brian himself. A gentleman, generous, gracious to a fault. But beneath that cultivated exterior was another man, a dedicated reformer who believed passionately that democracy was a gift to be cherished and nurtured and who was fierce in his conviction that an engaged citizenry was our last, best hope. As he wrote in Finding Values That Work: The Search For Fulfillment (New York: Walker and Co., 1978):

There are no shortcuts to happiness, but the most direct route follows the line of service rather than selfishness. The individual who would be fulfilled will sooner or later learn the equation of self and service. The successful searchers will also have learned that happiness isn't found, it's created. The closest I can come to a prescription is equal dosages of independence and interdependence -- and plenty of warmth to both core and community. There's no pretension that this formula will necessarily provide blissful contentment. It follows more the course outlined by Aristotle: "Happiness is the utlization of one's talents along the lines of excellence." That's the truer direction of fulfillment, and if all that effort and service sometimes cause you to wonder if there isn't an easier way, recall Dag Hammarskjold's statement that "In our era the road to holiness necessarily passes through the world of action...."

Brian O'Connell lived a long, full life, almost all of it spent in service to our sector and the country he loved. I join all those who worked with and admired Brian over the years in saying: "Well done, sir. Well done."

-- Mitch Nauffts

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Posted by Michael Seltzer  |   March 22, 2011 at 05:49 PM

Mitch, this is very sad news.

Brian was a stalwart and passionate advocate of the sector every day of his life. It was his persistence, and quiet humanity that ensured that Independent Sector would succeed and command respect in every quarter. He was a gracious mentor, and committed to writing- which is never easy for a full-time+ CEO. I served on many IS committees, and feel quite privileged to have worked with him. We also shared Syracuse University's Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs as part of our DNA.

Any notice about Brian would be incomplete without a reference to his beloved wife and collaborator Ann O'Connell. She was a constant comforting presence not only to Brain but to scores of others like myself who got to know her.

I give thanks that Brian has left us more than a dozen books to remind us of his wisdom and contributions.

Thank you, Mitch, for sharing with us your own recollections of Brian.


Michael Seltzer

Posted by Tracey O'Connell Sperry  |   March 22, 2011 at 06:35 PM

Mitch and Michael,

Thank you for your kind and poignant words in honor of my father. They are so comforting. I will share this with Mom who you so aptly describe as Dad's constant comforting presence.

Tracey O'Connell Sperry

Posted by Rick Schoff  |   March 23, 2011 at 10:30 AM

I was a veritable stripling when I first encountered Brian O’Connell and his work. I was working for Pat Read, then head of publishing at the Center, who had worked with Brian to produce America’s Voluntary Spirit. I never learned exactly how the Foundation Center came to produce that wonderful collection, our very first foray into publishing authored books and compilations. That title had many reprintings, which gave us the opportunity to fix any typos or other oddities. Of course, Brian was able to produce a comprehensive list of these to use as our guide! Indeed he was thorough and persistent.

The Foundation Center published a number of Brian’s books. A detail that sticks out: Brian asked to see proofs of the indexes we had prepared for those books, prior to their going to press. He would look these over and add terms and concepts he felt needed emphasis. What author does that?! Ann worked with Brian on the bibliographical material with the same care and precision; a team to keep you on your toes.

Brian spoke quietly, but if you spent a little time with him, it wasn’t long before you sensed the depth of his experience, the strength of his convictions, and the ideals that he took as givens. And he had lots of great stories as the result of his own experience and his constant research on nonprofits, philanthropy, and volunteering. A serious man, yes, but with a great sense of humor, a little devilish at times, I felt. Check out For the Fun of It: Minutes of Our Last Meeting, included as an appendix to the perennially popular The Board Member’s Book.

I last worked personally with Brian on a new edition of The Board Member’s Book. It wasn’t a pro forma task for him. He met with me at the Center, coming with a list of improvements he wanted to make. I knew well enough to do my own homework, and came with my own list. I breathed a sigh of relief when we realized our lists were near identical. I did have one additional suggestion, offered with the appropriate temerity. Brian took it seriously AND graciously. What author does that?!

Brian was a true champion, in every sense of the word, who touched many, many lives.

Posted by Matt  |   March 23, 2011 at 11:27 AM

I met Brian a few times at IS conferences in the late '90s and early '00s and have a copy of his Voices From the Heart that he signed for me. As others have said, he was always gracious and kind. I met him after he retired and there was an air of Hall of Famer about him. Indeed, if there were a Charitable Sector Hall of Fame, he would need to be inducted. He was one of those rare people whose comments seemed to have footnotes that the smart person would check for further reference.

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   March 23, 2011 at 02:41 PM

Thanks, Tracey. My condolences to you and your mom and the rest of your family. A number of colleagues have asked whether there will be a public service. If any decisions have been made in that regard, I'd be happy to pass along the information.

Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   March 23, 2011 at 02:46 PM

Thanks for the lovely note, Michael.

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