Thursday, August 27, 2015

Black Giving Matters: Q&A with Birgit Smith Burton of the African American Development Officers Network

A series by BGB Contributor Valaida Fullwood initiated for Black Philanthropy Month 2015 and aimed at informing, inspiring and investing in philanthropic leadership

Birgit Smith Burton is Founder and Chair of the African American Development Officers Network (AADON), established in 1999 and comprising of fundraising professionals from across the country. The mission of Burton’s network is to foster professional development and facilitate interaction among members.

Burton works as Senior Director of Foundation Relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta, Georgia. Her career as a fundraiser began more than 25 years ago in Buffalo, New York where she organized such events as Jim Thorpe Celebrity Golf Classic and the Lou Rawls Parade of Stars Telethon and later established the first campaign office of the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) in upstate New York.

Burton joined Foundation Relations at Georgia Tech in 1998 and raised $107M from foundations against a $40M goal during the institution’s capital campaign. Currently, she has led her team in raising $280M from private foundations against a goal of $180M in the Institute’s Campaign Georgia Tech with the campaign slated to conclude in December 2015. The Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) has recognized Burton as a “Faculty Star,” and the Kresge Foundation selected her as an advancement expert for its HBCU initiative.

Burton has served on the Design Team for the Community Foundation for Greater Atlanta’s study of African American philanthropy in metropolitan Atlanta, and she is a co-author of The Philanthropic Covenant with Black America. She is a past president of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP) Greater Atlanta Chapter, currently a national board member of AFP, as well as a board member for several other nonprofit organizations nationwide.


What’s your earliest memory of generosity?

My earliest memory of generosity was witnessing my grandmother Rev. Alvene Grice, who pastored a church in the small town of Covert, Michigan, for 35 years. I called her Poppy and when we would visit, I was her shadow—I would go everywhere with her. She would check on people who were ill, stop by the local school with a comb and brush and fix the hair of children whose mothers hadn’t combed their hair before school. And she would cook up meals in her kitchen and take them to people’s homes. I thought that was what people were supposed to do because I was in awe of my grandmother and I wanted to be just like her. I was four.

What’s your inspiration for giving?

You can imagine that if my grandmother was such a giving woman that all of her four children were taught to be charitable as well. And so her eldest child was my mother. My mother was a busy volunteer, and she and my father supported many organizations. I learned to volunteer my time and they encouraged me to tithe from my allowance and then later from my babysitting money. When I was 13, I called the 800-number and pledged $10 a month to the Christian Children’s Fund after seeing the hungry children on the TV commercial—I just couldn’t sleep knowing they needed my help.

What are your thoughts on why Black giving matters?

For much of American history, Black people have been excluded from participating in certain groups, businesses, and public and private entities so we began building our own religious, businesses and educational institutions as well as mutual aid and benevolent societies to meet our needs. The nonprofit sector is the mechanism through which Black people can support and protect our freedom and democracy.

What’s one lesson you've learned from your philanthropy?

I’ve learned that what you put out in the universe comes back to you—the law of reciprocity. It’s as simple as that. I remember singing in grandmother’s church, “You Can’t Beat God’s Giving” …the more you give, the more He gives to you. Just keep on giving because it’s really true. You can’t beat God’s giving….no matter how you try.

What do you aspire to see in this season of change, following Ferguson, Baltimore, Charleston, and so on?

In all honesty, the events that have impacted Black lives over the past year have me absolutely speechless. It made me cry recently that my son took his wife out for dinner to celebrate their 5th wedding anniversary and left the restaurant worried about the route they would take home so they wouldn’t risk being stopped by police that are known to be more aggressive towards Black men. I guess I want to see people pause more and take a moment to think about one another. Stop judging people based on our individual biases regarding race, gender, sexual orientation, age, physical appearance, etc. We are all simply human beings.

Submitted by Valaida Fullwood
Described an “idea whisperer,” Valaida brings unbridled imagination and a gift for harnessing wild ideas to her work as a writer and project strategist. She is a founding member of Charlotte’s New Generation of African American Philanthropists, author of Giving Back: A Tribute to Generations of African American Philanthropists and innovator for the touring exhibition “Giving Back: The Soul of Philanthropy Reframed and Exhibited.” Follow @ValaidaF and

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