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Helping Girls Help Themselves

For 60 years, whether as a board member, donor or volunteer, Donna Brace Ogilvie made it her life’s work to help low-income girls break free of poverty

HAD DONNA BRACE OGILVIE BEEN BORN at a time when women had greater options to work outside the home, she might have been a very successful businesswoman. As it was, for 60 years she made it her life's work—as a board member, a major donor and a hands-on volunteer—to help low-income girls break free of poverty.

Donna died on Oct. 4, 2015, in Stamford, Connecticut, at the remarkable age of 105. "She was a natural leader, a visionary thinker, and her ability to build and sustain relationships was phenomenal. There is no doubt in my mind that she could have been the CEO of a Fortune 500 company," says Judy Vredenburgh, president and CEO of Girls Inc., a nonprofit that Donna was intimately involved with for almost 60 years.

Born in 1910, Donna came of age during a time when women's opportunities were dramatically limited—even for the daughter of a phenomenally successful businessman. (Her father, Donald Brace, co-founded Harcourt, Brace & Howe Publishing Company in 1919.) In some ways, the realization of disparities in opportunity—as well as the challenges faced by the poor—helped fuel her philanthropic efforts.

In an interview not long before her death, Donna recalled her first visit, in 1955, to the Stamford chapter of what was then called Girls Club of America. She was shocked at the impoverished conditions that young girls and families had to endure so close to her own comfortable home.

"I think it's vitally important that girls know how to manage and save their money."—Donna Brace Ogilvie

"A very pregnant woman with two small children walked in, and Girls Club gave them a meal because the mother didn't have the money to feed her children," she said. "I couldn't believe people ate their meals out of cans and went hungry in Stamford."

Donna believed deeply in the value and dignity of every human being, says Vredenburgh. "Here these girls were missing the basics in life, and that was simply unacceptable to her."

Donna soon assumed a major role in fund-raising for the group, dedicating herself to helping lift girls out of poverty by giving them the life skills and education to lead financially independent lives. She chaired the Girls Inc. board of trustees, headed numerous committees, and launched a planned giving society that bears her name. In recent years, Donna continued to participate in board meetings via teleconferencing.

"Donna was very strategic in her thinking, always pushing Girls Inc. to grow and to have a meaningful impact on the girls we served," recalls Vredenburgh. "As a leader, she was incredibly affirming and motivated us to do our best for the organization." Her natural curiosity also made her open to change; born long before the Computer Age, Donna nevertheless enthusiastically strategized ways that Girls Inc. could use social media to promote itself.

No small-talker, Donna was direct in her manner and genuinely interested in those she met—qualities that made her an extraordinary fund-raiser. "People trusted her because she was so real with them," says Vredenburgh. "She hated flattery and being the center of attention. People could see that her philanthropy was true altruism, and donors related to how tough-minded she was in expecting performance from her own financial support of Girls Inc."

Beyond giving money and leadership, Donna cherished connecting with the girls themselves. She met Rachel, now 14, when she was five.

"She says she wouldn't have survived her unstable family life without being able to come to Girls Inc. every day," said Donna, who took Rachel to the Ritz Hotel for tea during the winter when Donna was staying at her home in Sarasota, Florida. "Like all little girls, she needed female support, and she got it from Girls Inc."

Donna was particularly proud of Girls Inc.'s economic literacy program. One feature of the program, which covers a broad range of financial knowledge, is to provide hands-on investing experience and a trip to the New York Stock Exchange for some of the older girls.

"I learned about stocks from my father, but no one ever talked to me about savings and budgeting when I was young," she said. "I made sure my own children got a financial education, and I think it's vitally important that these girls know how to manage and save their money."

Donna's father did more than inspire her interest in philanthropy. Her extensive library at her home in Greenwich, Connecticut, spoke to her love of books, nurtured by her father and honed by the authors her parents encouraged and entertained at their home—Katherine Anne Porter, Sinclair Lewis, Robert Frost and Carl Sandburg, who would play his guitar and sing for her. At her death, Donna's childhood home and extensive grounds were left to the town of Greenwich so that the historic estate could be enjoyed publicly.

"I admired my father, who was very gentle, learned and generous," said Donna, who in 1988 established the Donald C. Brace Foundation to honor his legacy. The foundation makes gifts to programs in education, the arts, medicine and the environment.

"Donna taught us all how to figure out what is important in life and how to give back."— Judy Vredenburgh president and CEO of Girls Inc.

Another of her philanthropic relationships was with Stamford Hospital in Connecticut, where her late husband, John Ogilvie, was chief of surgery and where she volunteered once a week for 62 years. In addition to taking leadership roles—president of the auxiliary, trustee of the hospital and a director of the hospital's foundation—Donna waited tables in the café and worked in the gift shop and at the information desk.

"It just makes you feel good that you're helping people," she said. "They can be upset or scared when they come to the hospital, and they need someone cheerful to greet and talk to them."

During a recent visit, when her Merrill Lynch financial advisor, W. Corby May, started ticking off the numerous organizations Donna had supported, she cut him off with a friendly, "Oh, Corby, come on!" Nor would she confess how many major gifts she had made in her lifetime. "Oh, I have no idea," she said, laughing.

"Donna was a remarkable and dynamic woman," says Corby, who in 1988 began helping her invest her assets and providing guidance on her philanthropic giving. He also assists with managing her children's assets, as well as those of her three grandchildren. "I was at her hundredth-birthday party, and it was amazing to see people coming from all over the country to honor her for how much good she has done."

Donna herself was rather modest about the rewards of her giving. "All I can say is that it has made me very happy that I've been able to assist young girls and young men and women who needed my help along the way," she said.

And in the process, she also served as a remarkable role model, says Vredenburgh. "Donna taught us all how to figure out what is important in life and how to give back. Girls Inc. was so fortunate to have had her as an inspiration for 60 years. Her values of selfless dedication to service and respect for each individual will continue to infuse our future."

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