My wife died suddenly a week ago. In lieu of flowers…
Hello, friend. My wife Alex died on July 17 — one week ago as I type this message. She died suddenly and painlessly. Her last minutes were in one of her favorite places, with one of her favorite people, doing one of her favorite things. We should all hope we can die in a beautiful moment like that — though perhaps not so soon. She’s among the 1% of registered organ donors who actually donate organs to other individuals, as the combination of brain death and healthy bodies is apparently quite rare. I’m holding together thanks to the kindness of tons of family, friends, acquaintances, and near-strangers. People are amazing.
Many folks have asked what they can do to honor Alex’s life. It’s not an easy question, so I thought I’d take some time to talk through the causes Alex cared most about. As I’ve flailed about trying to be useful, it occurred to me that perhaps I could use my not-terribly-large network to move the needle on her behalf. And maybe giving a small gift will help friends, family and even strangers who feel as helpless as I do right now.
Alex spent decades in the world of non-profit fundraising. The wonderful thing about fundraising is that there is a scoreboard — so we know Alex was great at it. Beyond that, she was a leader and manager. Alex wasn’t readily warm with strangers, and often took a long time to warm up to people. But at work — with coworkers and donors — I’ve come to learn that she was beloved, admired and thought of as family.
Alex and I often discussed philanthropy. I’d always argue in favor of ROI-based donations — finding a cause that delivers the most impact for the dollar. Alex believed people should give money and time to causes that resonate with them. I don’t think either of us ever budged the other, but today she gets to win the argument.
Each of the places she worked were special to her and we continued to support each of them after she moved on professionally. I’ll say a few words about each of them. I encourage you to tip your hat to Alex, pick the one that speaks to you most, and dig deep. Or, heck, give to all of ’em. If you do give and you’re comfortable with it, please drop me a note (email@example.com) and tell me about it. That might feel weird to do, but it’d bring comfort to me.
Below are the four causes that Alex advanced during nearly two decades of service (in chronological order).
Planned Parenthood / Donate to Planned Parenthood
Planned Parenthood delivers vital reproductive health care and education to millions of people worldwide. Many of the headlines about them tend to be around abortion rights, but they do so much more — birth control, cancer screenings, STD treatment/screenings, and just helping people be smart about sex in a culture that is often afraid to talk honestly about this stuff. For folks who can’t afford assistance, they give deeply discounted rates for their services.
This was Alex’s first foray into non-profits and she joined just as George Bush Jr. came to power. In her tenure at Planned Parenthood Alaska, she went to Washington DC and marched with Fran Ulmer (the Lieutenant Governor of Alaska at the time). When the Statewide Executive Director departed, Alex was asked to serve as Interim Executive Director.
Alex was legitimately worried that respect for and the freedom of women might slide backwards under Bush. In hindsight, those years were just a prelude to the risks we’re seeing today. Now is a more important time than ever to march, call, vote, and give on behalf of health care and women’s reproductive rights.
Big Brothers Big Sisters / Donate to BBBS
BBBS’ mission is providing children facing adversity with adult one-to-one relationships that change their lives for the better, forever. They take the task of matching “Bigs” to “Littles” seriously and there is a perennial shortage of mentors, especially men.
Alex joined BBBS of Alaska just a few months before my new startup was bought by a company in Seattle. She worked for them remotely for a bit and then was asked to join the Seattle office.
Alex and I met at a residential treatment facility for kids in Alaska. She worked in the sex offender cottage, helping treat sex offenders ages 11–18. When people’s eyes widen at hearing this, she would say, “99% of these kids were molested before they were molesters. And if you talk with them, you’ll realize they are still just kids.”
She was a huge believer in helping kids, and BBBS helped in an incredibly personal and foundational way: by giving them a stable/positive adult in otherwise tumultuous lives. It’s easy to look at non-profits and lose sight of the individuals they touch, even when your wife works for one. But I remember going to BBBS events and hearing folks tell the stories of some of these kids — the rough lives they endured and their incredible transformation after BBBS found them the perfect match was just plain amazing to see.
Trust for Public Land / Donate to TPL
Many land conservation organizations focus on saving land from humans. TPL is all about saving land for humans, so people can use and enjoy it. They don’t care who the land is for. A tiny park in a city, a hunting preserve, a ranch, or a stretch of coastline could be in a red state or blue state. It doesn’t matter where it is or who can enjoy it, as long as someone can.
When we moved to Washington, Alex was horrified to learn how much wilderness was privately owned, including virtually every inch of Washington coastline. She grew up in Alaska — a place where she could walk off the road virtually anywhere in the state and not worry about who owned it. TPL is one of those very quiet non-profits that you’ve probably never heard of — but you’d be astounded at just how many parks around the country exist as a result of their efforts. As we explored the Northwest, Alex would gleefully point to countless parks and green spaces and say, “That’s a TPL project!”
Most know that Alex grew up in Alaska and loved being in the wilderness. She had a list of every campground we ever visited. We bought a tiny teardrop trailer and she delighted kitting it out as the perfect little home in the woods. We’d walk through Schmitz Park two or three times a week — it’s an old growth forest a few blocks from our house that’s full of massive trees, streams, and lots of wildlife. We’d take different routes every time down to Alki Beach. Her favorite route was to loop all the way around the point near the lighthouse and up the rugged path in Me-Kwa-Mooks Park. The whole thing often took a few hours and Alex would stop constantly — to look at honeybees, fruit trees, slugs, owls, woodpeckers, seals, and tidepool critters.
Washington STEM / Donate to Washington STEM
Washington STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) aims to make STEM education in the state of Washington better, with an emphasis on making sure minorities and girls aren’t left behind in the effort. Like most people, Alex was surprised to learn that Washington (the home of Microsoft, Amazon, Boeing and more) was one of the worst states for STEM education. And just like the rest of the county, most of our STEM successes are with urban/suburban white boys — girls, minorities, kids from lower income families, and rural kids aren’t getting the same opportunities, attention, or resources.
When we returned from our year of travel in early 2014, Alex got a recruiting call from her first boss at Big Brothers Big Sisters. He was leading Washington STEM — a non-profit ‘startup’ endowed with a big pile of money and aiming to make a dent in the problem. Alex told her mom at the time, “I’ll meet him as a courtesy, but I don’t think I’m ready to go back to work.”
Turns out, she was ready. And the mix of helping Washington and improving education was a perfect fit for her.
Alex loved Washington State. When we moved here, Alex was a diehard Alaska girl. We both worried about leaving such a special place, but I learned later that Alex was downright dreading it. But we both fell in love with Washington and the Pacific Northwest.
And Alex’s belief in the power of education was lifelong and deep. She was one of the few people in her family to earn a college degree (she had two and half!). Before working for traditional non-profits, she worked in education — first in admissions at a college aimed at underserved students and later at a non-sectarian private school.
Washington STEM was a gift to us both because it provided a connection between our worlds. I always admired and supported Alex’s various causes. But a startup non-profit? To help create more geeks? This was a subject that we could both light up discussing at dinner and on dog-walks.
Those are her causes.
When we talked about philanthropy, Alex and I would have lively discussions about when to give. Do you focus on earning money so you can give when you die? How much do you give per year?
I’m a financially cautious person by nature, but Alex drove us to give now, often, and a lot.
While she thought it was wonderful when rich folks died and left money to charity, she was always sad for them that they didn’t get to enjoy giving when they were alive. She believed that giving enriched the giver and — as she was in most things — she was right. So I encourage you to give now as a thank you to Alex, as a gift to me, as a gift to these organizations, and as a gift to yourself.
Those links for donation again:
(Each donation form has the ability to note that the gift is in memory of someone — please use “Alex Johnston”. If possible, I’d be grateful if you sent me a note telling me about your gift at firstname.lastname@example.org)