Meet the Founder of AADO:
Interview conducted by Keatley Scroggins
Written by Anne Stanford
Extraordinary fundraiser, community leader, and visionary, Birgit Smith Burton has made a lasting impact on the fundraising community in Atlanta and across the nation.
Like many others in her profession, Birgit did not anticipate a career in fundraising. Born in Germany, she spent her formative years in Buffalo, New York. After high school, Birgit intended to pursue her passions and musical talents on the Broadway stage and earned a coveted spot in the musical theater program at the State University of New York at Fredonia. After much consideration, she eventually decided to pursue a degree in media communications. During an internship, Birgit had her first encounter with fundraising when she helped organize an event for UNCF. From that moment on, she had found her calling. She began her fundraising career with UNCF and went on to become an area director.
Birgit eventually left Buffalo and UNCF to take a position at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. Over the course of her more than two decades with Georgia Tech, Birgit has risen through the ranks, and now serves as the executive director of Foundation Relations. Last year, her efforts raised $12 million from private foundations for the benefit of Georgia Tech.
In 1999, one year into her tenure at Tech, Birgit started the African American Development Officers (AADO) Network. Describing the impetus for starting AADO, she said, “I was the first fundraiser of color that Georgia Tech had hired, and I wanted to connect with more fundraisers, particularly those who worked for universities in the Atlanta University Center, the HBCUs near Georgia Tech—Spellman, Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Interdenominational Theological Center, and Morris Brown. I invited my counterparts from those institutions to Georgia Tech to have a breakfast with roundtable discussions.”
After the success of the initial gathering, the group continued to meet, and the following year, they began the AADO Conference, which has grown and thrived in the years since. Now called the Conference on Diverse Philanthropy and Leadership, the conference is jointly presented by AADO and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, and brings together more than 200 participants from across North America. Birgit's dream for AADO is to organize from a network to a fully operational nonprofit with a focus on growing and supporting fundraisers and diverse philanthropy.
Birgit also has provided volunteer leadership and service to the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), where she sits on the national board and serves as the vice chair for membership engagement. Previously, she was the chair of IDEA, which is Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access. Through her involvement with AFP and AADO, she has served as a role model and mentor for countless other fundraisers.
She has remained engaged with her community through her involvement with the Alvene Lowe Grice Scholarship Fund, which was established to honor her grandmother, and Hosea Helps, an Atlanta-based organization which was started by Civil Rights icon Hosea Williams. Birgit said, “I’m involved not just because I’m passionate about helping people who are the working poor. I’m also involved because of what I can contribute through my knowledge of the fundraising profession. I can help this organization do better.”
When asked about what wisdom she wished she had known earlier in her career, Birgit said she wished she had understood more about the “art and science of fundraising.” She explained, “There are some people who are really personable and passionate, but they don’t have the knowledge or understand the science behind fundraising. You have to know who the right person is to make an ask, that it might not be you. It might be a board member or another staff person, or another volunteer, or a leader in the community who supports the organization.”
She went on to describe how this understanding of the science of fundraising is as important as understanding how to connect with people and determine when to make the ask.
Birgit has used her ability to connect with others not only to raise funds for Georgia Tech and the organizations she works with but also to serve her fundraising colleagues. A born connector, Birgit described her superpower as networking and said she “knows how to put people together.”
While her to-do list keeps her up at night (and leads her to send middle-of-the-night emails), she unwinds by driving to see the fall colors and relaxing with friends and family, including her two grown children and two granddaughters.
Contemplating her legacy, Birgit said she hopes to be remembered for making a difference because she moved the needle in everything she did.
As all who know her and her lasting influence would agree, Birgit has most definitely moved that needle.