Brian O’Connell, the always optimistic visionary who in 1980 co-founded Independent Sector with John W. Gardner, has died. He was 81.
O’Connell is being remembered as a nonprofit executive who saw that more could be done to advocate for the sector and the people served by it. A scholar but also a politically savvy, practical manager, O’Connell was at the forefront of almost every major sector development for 50 years.
The cause of death was complications from cancer.
“Brian O’Connell offered the sector and the nation a wonderful gift, and we would not be where we are today without his vision and leadership,” said Diana Aviv, president and CEO of Independent Sector. “He was passionate about building the sector and, through his work and insight, advanced research and education that helped to create the next generation of leadership. We will always be grateful for his service to our organization, our sector, and our country.”
Colleagues remember O’Connell as committed, meticulous, forward-thinking and gracious. “More than anything I recall that he was an expert at cultivation — cultivating staff, the board, and people outside the organization,” said John Thomas, who worked with O’Connell for more than 25 years, first at the National Mental Health Association and then at Independent Sector as vice president of communications. Thomas also remembered his tact. “He would send us memos to prompt us to do things. He would start every memo with ‘You probably already thought of this…’ Of course we had not thought of it, but he made us feel good.”
O’Connell was national director of the National Mental Health Association for 12 years during a period of breakthroughs in community care and in the understanding and treatment of depression. During that time he was also an organizer and first chairman of the National Committee on Patients’ Rights. For the prior dozen years he was with the American Heart Association, serving as the director of its California affiliate.
He became president of the National Council of Philanthropy and executive director of the Coalition of National Voluntary Organizations. On March 5, 1980, after almost two years of preparation and planning, he and Gardner launched Independent Sector. O’Connell served for 15 years as president and CEO. During that time, he was on the ground floor of the founding of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Civic Participation.
O’Connell’s life was a complete circle. He was a 1953 graduate of Tufts University in Medford, Mass., and returned there to help found the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service. He received the Tufts Distinguished Alumni Award and the school established the Brian O’Connell Library, comprised of books from his personal collection. He said that he hoped visitors to Tisch College would read the volumes, which address citizenship and civic education, the nonprofit sector, and philanthropy.
Most recently O’Connell served on the boards of The Bridgespan Group and The Cape Cod Foundation. He also served on the boards of the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the National Academy of Public Administration, the Points of Light Foundation, the Hogg Foundation, and the National Assembly of Health and Social Welfare Organizations. He was also chairman of the 1989 Salzburg Seminar on non-governmental organizations.
O’Connell was elected a Fellow of the American Public Health Association and the National Academy of Public Administration and received several honorary degrees, including a doctorate of humanities from Fairleigh Dickinson University and doctorate of laws from Indiana University. He performed his graduate work at the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Syracuse.
He received many awards including a special John W. Gardner Leadership Award when he retired from Independent Sector; Weston Howland Award for Citizenship from the Lincoln Filene Center; Gold Key Award of the American Society of Association Executives; United Way of America’s Award for Professionalism; the Chairman’s Award of the National Society of Fund Raising Executives, and with John W. Gardner, the 1998 Tiffany Award for Public Service.
He was the author of 14 books, his most recent being a memoir, Fifty Years in Public Causes: Stories from a Road Less Traveled. Other titles include Civil Society: The Underpinnings of American Democracy; Voices From the Heart: In Celebration of America’s Volunteers; The Board Member’s Book; Effective Leadership in Voluntary Organizations; America’s Voluntary Spirit; Board Overboard: Laughs and Lessons for All But the Perfect Nonprofit; People Power: Service, Advocacy, Empowerment; Powered By Coalition: The Story of Independent Sector; Philanthropy in Action; and, with his wife, Ann Brown O’Connell, Volunteers in Action.
It seems that O’Connell was there when just about every major sector infrastructure organization was taking shape. Eugene R. Tempel, Ph.D., president, Indiana University Foundation and former head of the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University, remembers when the center was on the drawing board.
“He was one of the first people we consulted in whether to and how to organize the Center on Philanthropy. I consider him as one of the pioneers in studying and teaching about volunteerism, philanthropy, nonprofit management, and civic engagement,” said Tempel.
Indiana University bestowed on him an honorary degree in 1997. “No funny stories, only respectful memories of his leadership,” said Tempel.
Developing the next generation of leaders was always a concern for O’Connell. During an interview for a Bridgestar publication, O’Connell said, “Finding good people and placing them effectively gets far too little attention in the nonprofit world.” He continued, “My approach has always been to invest in a search believing that success will pretty much guarantee that at the end of just two or three years the administrative expenses will be proportionately down and the program investments will be way up. That happens when you have a successful team of staff and board, because you’ll have greater fulfillment of the mission, which is the essential gauge of success.”
Virginia Hodgkinson, Ph.D., scholar and former vice president for research at Independent Sector, remembered how important it was to O’Connell that executives continue to learn and teach. “An example of his leadership was his constant encouragement to leaders to write books,” she said. “There were few books on the sector when we started, barely enough to fill a bookshelf, as John Gardner used to say. Brian was indefatigable in his encouragement to get people to write articles and books.”
That push for education was emphasized by John Thomas, former vice president of communications at Independent Sector and decades long-time friend of O’Connell. “No one has done more over the years to write about, speak about and educate about the existence of a major nonprofit or independent sector in our country than Brian O’Connell,” said Thomas. “Several experienced nonprofit organization leaders have told me that they didn’t really see their organizations as part of a major sector of our nation until hearing Brian speak about it or reading his writings on it.”
To O’Connell, Independent Sector was the members, not the other way around. “The annual meeting of members was a big deal. It was the showcase for members. It was a place to meet others and to have members share their successes and challenges, to exhibit their leadership. Brian never gave a big speech at the annual meeting. That was reserved for members,” said Hodgkinson.
Planning for this annual event took a full year each year. “I remember that the Monday before each annual meeting, he would have staff in for the ‘yuckiest’ meeting of the year. Brian would preside and tell us this one story. It was about his former staff in another organization complaining about the detail that went into the meeting. After he left the organization, he was invited to a meeting and given an award. One of the staff members said: you see, we can run a successful meeting and pay attention to every detail. At that point, Brian showed him the engraved plate they had given him as an award. There it was: ‘Brain O’Connell.’
”The plate was passed around and the last thing any staff member wanted was to receive the “Brain O’Connell” award, she said.
“He did admit that he did not mind the misspelling! And for the next three hours, we would go over every session, every name card, every meeting, every invitation, every event of the upcoming meeting to make certain it ran like clockwork and that the members felt welcome and were served at all times,” she said. “I think that this was one of the few organizations that I am acquainted with where the president did not take a starring role. And it made a big difference. But this is Brian’s leadership. He was always thinking about others.”
Technology was not a strong suit for him. “Brian wasn’t a big fan of computers, especially in the early days. Perhaps that was because he didn’t need one. His mind worked like one. He could track dozens of concurrent projects tweaking and/or nudging each one at just the right time with reminder memos to staff and volunteer leadership, bringing them all to success. The success was theirs; the inspiration was his,” said Thomas.
Regardless of the crisis, he always treated people with great civility. He was a servant as leader, said Hodgkinson. “He was such a gentleman. What Brian tried to do for both members and staff was to cultivate emerging leaders, to support members who wanted to become leaders in the coalition, whether it was about public policy, leadership education, philanthropy or providing a vision for the future. I never once heard Brian raise his voice. He did not have to. And he always listened to what anyone had to say.”
Brian O’Connell was one of those rare individuals whose talents appeared at the right time and for the right reason, said John McIlquham, founder and CEO of The NonProfit Times. McIlquham recalled being in Grand Island, N.Y., for a National Council of Churches conference where he and Brian were speaking. “We sat in the lounge one night as Brian spoke of his vision for The Independent Sector,” he said.
“It was then that I realized how gifted his insight was and how important the talents he brought to bear in founding IS from two struggling organizations: The National Council on Philanthropy, then headed up by Dr. Homer Turner, and the Coalition of National Voluntary Organizations. Brian, with his deft management and political skills, assembled a team that saw The Independent Sector rise to national prominence with its advocacy on the federal level and research into giving and volunteerism,” McIlquham said. “His passion and vision, well documented in the 14 books he authored, will be sorely missed.”
O’Connell could mobilize people and their ideas. Said Thomas: “Brian had the ability to organize citizens in action around whatever the cause, and lead them to levels of success beyond what they thought they could accomplish — all the while, creating the feeling that this cause and their work in its behalf was the most important thing on earth.”