Monday, July 25, 2011

Olga Alexeeva

We talk a lot about measuring success in philanthropy - have we made a difference with our efforts? How do we know if we've made a difference in our own lives, as people? Are we doing our best? What metrics matter to us? Friends, family, health, material wealth, experiential diversity, age, depth of experiences, ideas we generate?

I'm at an age where I and many of my peers are simultaneously raising young children and caring for or losing our aging parents. A few years ago I was amazed at how frequently I found myself consoling or being consoled by friends, colleagues, peers on the loss of a loved one. Now I am not surprised by the frequency, though the shock and sadness of each loss are raw and new and intense each and every time. Technology enables us to learn of losses immediately and in our interlocked professional and personal circles. In just the past week, while mourning a passing in my own extended family, I heard through email of the passing of the infant son of a distant work colleague and the unexpected passing of Olga Alexeeva. (You can read more about Olga here, here, and here)

I met Olga years ago in Budapest when the two of us were asked (by whom, I don't remember) to lead a panel on community philanthropy in the US and Eastern European countries. We planned the panel about 2 hours before showtime, as we had been unable to coordinate anything in advance. I remember her asking the toughest questions - of me and of the audience. Shortly after starting the "panel," Olga and I were both sitting in the audience, chairs all turned from audience-style to an odd circle-type shape, having a rich, argument-filled discussion with 50 or so other people. When the session ended, Olga clapped me on the back and said "That was fun - let's do it again," and wandered off, talking to everyone in the room. Before we had started I had known very few people in the room, but having spent time with Olga I now felt like I knew almost everyone.

Over the years I'd heard from her occasionally, served on advisory boards and panels with her, and followed her professional career changes with interest. I can't say I knew Olga well. I can say that she taught me many things about community philanthropy in Russia and elsewhere, about speaking your mind, and about reaching out beyond your comfort zone. She challenged ideas she didn't like and often made them better with her suggestions. She pushed conference organizers and magazine boards to look for new opinions and push past the known pundits in the field. I've learned things about people in our shared professional circles from reading their tributes to Olga and realized even in death she was connecting people and ideas. I can't say how Olga measured her own life or what she hoped for. I can say that she enriched my life and for that I am grateful.

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