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A Tribute To Matt Balitsaris

On a recent night in Boston I joined a dinner honoring Matt Balitsaris, a philanthropist who has worked in solidarity with the Haitian people for a long time, and who succeeded me as Chairman of Fonkoze USA.  Towards the end of the evening, I gave him a toast, and others did as well.  A reconstruction of my toast appears below.  

A wise man, who happened to be my father, said to me once that when you properly say farewell to a departing employee or volunteer, you are doing it as much for the people who staying as you are for the person who is leaving.  By that I took it to mean that the organization is signaling that it values good work done the right way, which applies to everyone.  So Matt, I know you may find this ceremony tonight a little embarrassing, as you are a truly humble man, but perhaps you can recall that by honoring you we are honoring all those who serve Fonkoze and Haiti.

Matt in HaitiI served as Vice-Chair before I was elected Chair of Fonkoze USA in November 2009.  Mary Becker was the Chair at that time, and she involved me in many important ways.  Mary and her husband Gary were two of the true giants of this organization’s history.  But when I was elected Chair, I imagined a more robust role for the Vice-Chair.  In part this was because my ambitions for Fonkoze during my time as Chair far outstripped the amount of time I could give, and also, frankly, my capabilities.

I did not know Matt that well, but we quickly began working together very effectively.  He gladly took on the wider mandate for Vice-Chair – which effectively amounted to him being a Co-Chair.  (In this sense, he served as Chairman for six years, rather than just three.)  This arrangement turned out to be essential, since it was about ten weeks after I was elected Chairman that the earthquake struck in January 2010.  There was more than enough work for both of us to do.

In fact, you could say that this enhanced role was akin to George W. Bush elevating the role of Vice-President for Dick Cheney.  Well, maybe that’s not the best example actually.

Matt has a certain style.  Do some of you recall the TV show and character Columbo, and how Peter Falk played him?  You had this rumpled detective who led everyone to believe he was dim-witted, which caused the villain each week to under-estimate him.  But when it mattered, Columbo would show his keen intellect and how effectively he could get things done.

Matt operates in much the same way.  He is typically underestimated, and I believe that also helps him get things done.  People often don’t notice how smart he is, even after he has gotten something done – usually while leaving few if any fingerprints!

Yet, like Julian Schroeder – another Fonkoze hero – when needed he can shed his laid back persona and bring forth strong views, strong leadership, and even strong language.  And when that moment, usually some kind of crisis, passes, he slouches back into his normal manner and quietly goes back to getting things done behind the scenes and through others.

Matt is someone who has deep knowledge of and commitment to Haiti over many years, and terrific contacts there.  Unlike people like me, who had never gone to Haiti before I got involved in Fonkoze and may never return now that my term is complete, Matt had been going there for years before he was elected to the Board, learning and contributing at each step.  I am sure he will continue far into the future.

One of the many things I appreciate about Matt is that when he learns something that contradicts his point of view on an issue, he is willing to change his point of view and also let people know, even those who had had argued with previously on the issue.  At the risk of reinforcing a gender stereotype, I find that men are particularly averse to changing their mind and even more to letting others know they have done so.  This is true even when sharing your change of heart would build rapport and trust.  Matt is an exception to that rule, and his example has spurred others to change their minds, build trust, and create an environment where people are humble and curious.

Let me offer one final observation.  Being that this is Fonkoze, we do certain things a lot.  For example, we drink wine.  We go to Haiti.  We raise money.  And we argue.

Matt has this ability to have everyone who is in an argument believe that he is on their side.  Sometimes people achieve this by saying different things to different people.  But that’s not Matt’s approach.  He is consistent and tells the truth, the same truth, to all sides.

You see, it is clear to everyone that at the end of the day when people are feuding, Matt does not take one person’s side or the other.  Rather, he takes the side of the women of Fonkoze, and the women of Haiti.  His principled and values-led approach makes has earned the respect of everyone in Fonkoze, whether they agree with him or not on any particular issue.  This way of operating has also created a standard that many of us aspire to, even though few of us attain it.

So, for the good of our mission, as we pass this milestone we should not only thank Matt, but also each of us would do well to get in touch with our inner Matt Balitsaris as we confront the opportunities and challenges ahead.

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