Walnut Creek 'Citizen' Odne on the receiving end this time
By Lou Fancher
Much to the relief of Kathleen Odne, there will be no ticker tape parade on Main Street to celebrate her recent recognition by the Walnut Creek Chamber of Commerce as 2016 Citizen of the Year.
Odne was honored May 4 at the Chamber's 90th Anniversary Year luncheon.
"I felt dumbfounded, then sheepish," she said, about finding herself on the opposite end of the award distribution chain. As executive director of the Dean & Margaret Lesher Foundation, Odne is more accustomed to doling out grants and honorable mentions than to receiving them.
"Through my work with nonprofits, I know that there are many, many other people who quietly and honorably do great work in the community without recognition," she said. "I share this with them."
The Lesher Foundation provides grants to nonprofits in Northern California that support K-12 education, the visual and performing arts and programs benefiting children and families. In addition to her position with the Foundation, Odne serves on the board of the National Center for Family Philanthropy in Washington, D.C. and is on the board of John Muir Health System. She has served on the boards of De La Salle High School and the Junior League of Oakland-East Bay, among others.
"Kathleen has been a remarkable role model professionally and personally through her commitment to excellence in her involvement with nonprofit organizations," said chamber Chief Executive Officer Jay Hoyer,
Sharing is instinctive and volunteering habitual for Odne. During her childhood in Chicago, a neighborhood bookmobile was her first foray into giving back to a community. "It wasn't well staffed. I was maybe 9 years old. I asked if I could help. I'm sure the ladies working there were taken aback -- I was so young -- but they let me do it. I felt very grown up helping kids find books."
Participating in clothing and food drives during high school solidified her helping "habits." Moving to California with her husband John Odne and finding herself the mother of three young boys all born within a 5-year period, she stepped out of the workforce and became involved in the Junior League. At a conference in China in 1995, her future career was forecast.
"Meeting women from all over the globe who were trying to improve their communities, get education for their daughters, get clean water -- some even risked their lives to come from Third World countries -- it made me realize how fortunate I was. It stoked my fire."
In her role at the foundation, Odne said, she must be a "good synthesizer." Calculating whether or not experts on specific issues are also running fiscally sound nonprofits sometimes leads to tough decisions.
"Honestly, everything that comes across my desk is worthy. I have to be mindful of assessing leadership and fiscal responsibility and separate myself from empathy for the cause."
For family foundations, that means supporting nonprofits that adhere to fundamental principles relating to honesty, fairness, board management and other best practices. Odne is past chair of the committee that developed the Council on Foundations' "Stewardship Principles for Family Foundations." Although she feels a commitment to all of the principles, she said having a clear mission is primary.
"The family should be clear about what they're trying to do because you can't do everything," she said. "Even Bill and Melinda Gates can't do everything. It's important to know where you want to move the needle."
Asked what she'd most like to improve about Walnut Creek, her answer is immediate: "We have a persistent homeless problem. It's easy not to see it: they're not out on Broadway Plaza. In San Francisco, poverty just smacks you in the eye. Here, they hang out behind buildings. I wish we could do better with that."
If allowed a second wish, Odne says it is for more people to "take the extra leap" to serve on nonprofit boards.
And what does she hope will never change? "Our commitment to open space."
Before it was fashionable to be green, Odne said, people in Walnut Creek understood the value of undeveloped hilltops, of Mount Diablo and other East Bay treasures. "We can still see nature," she said. "I'll never tire of that."