Statement on the Death of Brian O'Connell, Co-founder and President Emeritus
January 23, 1930 - March 21, 2011

(WASHINGTON, March 22, 2011)—With the passing of Brian O’Connell, Independent Sector and the nation have lost a true builder of community and a champion of democracy. Brian co-founded Independent Sector and served as its president from 1980-1995. He imparted great lessons that we will continue to embrace: to take pride in America’s legacy of voluntary participation and generosity; to fortify the nonprofit and philanthropic community; to preserve the independence of nonprofit organizations; to encourage greater citizen participation in American democracy; and, above all, to pass on these values to future generations in America and around the globe.

"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. "Brian joined with John W. Gardner to create Independent Sector, a national organization committed to advancing the charitable community and individual and group citizen action. 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."

Sara Meléndez, who succeeded Brian as president and CEO of Independent Sector added "Brian lived all that he preached -- and preach he did -- about the values and contributions to democracy of the independent sector. He espoused and exemplified the values of honesty, integrity, accountability, transparency and respect for the dignity of each individual. And that is how he lived his life. Brian O’Connell was unique and he will be missed."

Colleagues remember Brian 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," recounted John Thomas, who worked with Brian for more than 25 years, first at the National Mental Health Association and then at Independent Sector as vice president of communications. John also remembers Brian’s tactfulness. "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."


Brian O’Connell spent a lifetime advancing the issues of the nonprofit and the philanthropic sector. For twelve years he was national director of the National Mental Health Association 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 John W. Gardner launched Independent Sector. Brian served for 15 years as president and CEO of the organization, which from the beginning has been devoted to strengthening voluntary initiative, philanthropy and civic action. During that time, he was on the ground floor of the founding of CIVICUS: World Alliance for Civic Participation.

Brian was a 1953 graduate of Tufts University and later received the Tufts Distinguished Alumni Award. He served as a trustee there, and after leaving Independent Sector, professor of citizenship and public service from 1995 to 2006 He helped found the Jonathan M. Tisch College of Citizenship and Public Service at Tufts, where he established the Brian O'Connell Library. Comprised of books from his personal collection, he hoped visitors to Tisch College would read the volumes, which address citizenship and civic education, the nonprofit sector, and philanthropy.

Most recently Brian served on the boards of The Bridgespan Group and The Cape Cod Foundation. Prior assignments included board membership with: the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation, the National Academy of Public Administration, Points of Light Foundation, 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.

Brian was an elected 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.

Brian O’Connell 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.

Brian penned 14 books including his most recent, his memoir, Fifty Years in Public Causes: Stories from a Road Less Traveled, and donated a beautiful “Brian O’Connell Bookshelf” with signed copies of each to Independent Sector in September 2010. 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.


Independent Sector is a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of approximately 550 charities, foundations, and corporate giving programs, collectively representing tens of thousands of charitable groups in every state across the nation. Its mission is to advance the common good by leading, strengthening, and mobilizing the nonprofit and philanthropic community.

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