By Sharon J. Stanczak, President, The Friday Forum

An Advancement Visionary

I am pleased to welcome Birgit Smith Burton to The Friday Forum Blog. Birgit is the Executive Director of Development, Foundation Relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology and Founder of the African American Development Officers Network (AADO). In partnership with CASE, the AADO oversees the annual Conference on Diverse Philanthropy and Leadership. Birgit is nationally recognized as a leader in both the field of advancement, as well as diversity in the fundraising profession.

Q. As founder of the African American Development Officers Network (AADO), what are your thoughts on how to grow and support more diversity in our profession?

A. It is extremely important that there is more diversity in the fundraising profession. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the fundraising profession is expected to grow by nearly 15% between 2016 to 2026. However, the percentage of minority professionals who are members of the Association of Fundraising Professionals is less than 10% (of the third of the 31,000 + members who responded to this survey question). So AADO is interested in insuring that people of color are included in this growth. One of the ways that we are drawing attention to the profession is by hosting a series of panel discussions around the country called AADO Next to provide information to a diverse audience. Often participants are new to the fundraising profession and interested in learning how to qualify for available jobs, they are interested in transitioning from the for-profit side, or even finding out how to position themselves for leadership opportunities. The annual Conference on Diverse Philanthropy and Leadership is another way of drawing attention to diversity in the profession. It is a partnership with the Council for Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) which brings 200 people together for a robust 3-day program that features sessions on enhancing management and leadership skills for development professionals of diverse backgrounds. In addition, AADO partners with several executive search firms to take seriously the need to bring more diversity into the candidate pool as well as work with potential candidates on how to better represent their skills and experience in their resume and interviews.

Q. Is the work of the AADO the same or different from when you first had the vision for this organization in 1999?

A. AADO was simply an opportunity for me to network with professionals around Georgia Tech in Atlanta, particularly in the Atlanta University Center where you find Spelman, Morehouse, and Morris Brown Colleges, Clark Atlanta University, and the Interdenominational Theological Center. We gathered over breakfast roundtable discussions to share best practices, advice, complain a little about the general challenges in the profession as well as being a person of color in the profession. It was a great networking opportunity then and I had absolutely no idea it would grow into the AADO it is today. There are nearly 1,000 members around the country. We have an advisory board, a monthly Power Hour, member profiles on the website and plenty more. And we’re working towards AADO becoming a fully operating nonprofit.

Q. You came from a background in the arts—music, Broadway. What has inspired you, personally, to enter the field of development?

A. Like most of my contemporaries, I stumbled into the profession. I had no knowledge of fundraising as an occupation. Once I realized that I might not be able to make it on Broadway (I was good but just not quite good enough) I discovered the fundraising profession through an opportunity with the United Negro College Fund. UNCF, at that that time in my life, was hiring and training novice fundraisers. You just needed a college degree and an interest in raising money for UNCF. So I was hired as the area director for the upstate New York UNCF campaign. I quickly discovered that I not only had an interest in fundraising, I actually had a talent for it. I really enjoyed what I was doing and was excited to know that I could actually make a career out of it. And truth be told, I often present to audiences on different topics and that’s where I get the opportunity to perform!!

Q. You have referred to diverse philanthropy. How do you define this and why is it important?

A. The inclusion or recognition of different types of people with respect to race, gender, ability, social economic status, age, education and how all of these voices need to be represented in philanthropy whether they are the ones raising the money, giving the money, or in need of the money. We need diversity. Every day we need new ideas and new views, to inspire us, to show us different ways to experience the world (corny I know).

Q. How does this concept carry over into your work as Executive Director of Foundation Relations at the Georgia Institute of Technology?

A. I am so tuned in to diversity on many levels in my work at Georgia Tech. I focus on raising money for diverse programs and projects for students of color, students with disabilities, women’s initiatives, scholarships, K-12 programs in underserved communities around Georgia Tech. And as the first frontline fundraiser of color hired in the Office of Development at Georgia Tech, I have made it a mission to help increase diversity among staff by sharing available opportunities at Georgia Tech with my networks and by helping hiring managers to recognize their unconscious biases.

Q. Unconscious bias is such a complex reality. How do you define it, and how does it impact hiring?

A. Here’s what I find interesting about unconscious bias. It’s a fact that at any given moment we are bombarded with over eleven million pieces of information and yet our brains can only process about 40 pieces of information. So, to compensate, our brains use our past experiences to quickly make assumptions. In my opinion, we all do this when we are in a position to hire someone. It’s easy to feel comfortable with hiring someone who doesn’t test our discomfort level when it comes to their thoughts, experiences, looks, and/or behavior. What is not so easy to do is to hire someone who is very different from us. It definitely challenges our comfort level and will leave people wondering, “What if I make a mistake by hiring this person?” Quite often the person making that stretch decision feels that they will be judged or blamed if the person doesn’t work out and so they will take the candidate through extra layers of scrutiny. This definitely impacts all types of diversity in hiring fundraisers.

Q. What about networking? You’ve been referred to as an expert networker. A lot of people find “networking” to be a mysterious art form and it’s certainly important to job seekers. What are some of the ways that you network?

A. I absolutely LOVE networking. It is a true talent of mine. I do not know everything but I sure do know a whole lot of people who do and so the best thing I do is connect people with each other. I do this through email introductions, inviting people to events, recruiting people to serve on committees and boards, sending people information on others they should know.

Q. If I were curious about becoming an advancement professional, what advice would you give me? How would I know if it was right for me?

A. When people are interested in the profession but have never really done any frontline fundraising I tell them to volunteer with a nonprofit organization. The best way to get your feet wet and learn what it takes to raise money is to do it and it does not get any more real than doing the work for free. You can learn firsthand from working alongside the development director, or working with the board, or even helping with a fundraising event. If you find that you enjoy it and you want to learn more, then you can begin to look for entry-level opportunities, attend conferences with fundraising tracks, or even seek a mentor who would be willing to provide guidance and counsel.

Thank you, Birgit, for sharing your reflections, thoughts and insights with us!