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Why Representation Matters

Birgit Smith Burton
Published:  03/08/2022


diverse faces

Birgit Smith Burton is the executive director of foundation relations at Georgia Tech, where she has worked for 25 years. She is chair-elect for the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP), she sits on the board of the Ahmaud Arbery Foundation, and she is on the board of trustees at her alma mater, Medaille College. In addition, she is co-chair of AHP’s 2022 International Conference committee.

She is also founder of the African American Development Officers network (AADO) and will soon step into a formal leadership role, and in that capacity, she sat down with our chief operating officer, Jordan English, to discuss how we can increase diversity, inclusivity, and belonging among fundraising professionals. 



You have a more specific, quantifiable mission of bringing 1,000 new fundraisers of color into the profession over the next eight years. How did you get to 1,000, and how did you get to eight years?



Well, I’m trying to be realistic. So about three years ago, AFP did its usual demographics survey of the membership. At that time, 9% responded that they identified as being people of color and only 4% responded that they identified as being African American out of approximately 30,000 AFP members. But we also know that the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that fundraising is one of the fastest-growing professions and that growth is expected to continue by 10% to 15% over the next decade.

I’m not a mathematician, but the expectation is that we’re going to have quite a gap, in the number of fundraisers needed for nonprofit organizations. If we’re going to be looking for fundraisers, we should be considering those fundraisers of color, who quite often look like the communities that are being served by many of these nonprofit organizations.

There’s currently between 1.3 and 1.5 million nonprofit organizations in the country, and I like to look at it like this: if every single organization had one fundraiser, that’s 1.5 million fundraisers. So, looking at 1,000 people of color over basically the next decade—just under a hundred a year—is actually pretty low.



We were talking earlier about Dr. Marc Harrison’s charge [to increase equity] at Intermountain, and he spoke about it so casually as though, why wouldn’t you do it? It’s just not that hard: you make a commitment to something that’s important to your organization, and you find a way to make it work. From your perspective, is what is stopping other employers from doing what Intermountain is doing?



Oh, I think it’s simple. They don’t want to put the effort into it. After last year’s focus on racial equity after the murder of George Floyd and the interest in the experience of diverse professionals within organizations, many are going through diversity fatigue, and they don’t want to put in the effort because what if they make a mistake, what if they say the wrong thing?

There is now the pressure of bringing someone in, and people feeling like they have to walk on eggshells. There are whole lists now of things we can’t do or say for fear we will offend someone. Some phrases such as, “they worked me like a slave” or “let’s have a powwow,” we can all probably agree people have been aware of these types of taboo statements for some time. But now, we’re also trying to be sensitive to gender-specific language like, “you guys.” We don’t know what to say. And we don’t know what to do if we make that mistake. I’m seeing employers not want to put the energy it takes to bringing diverse professionals into their organization.



You said earlier that we should consider having fundraising professionals that look like the communities that they represent. Why do you think representation is so important?



I don’t want to call out this particular organization, but their board of trustees was all in their 50s and 60s, all white, all male. All of the staff was also white, and they were reaching out to the community [that was racially and ethnically diverse] to support this local organization, and the community responded by saying, “How can you know what’s meaningful to us or what we enjoy?” When people don’t see themselves represented in an organization, they’re less likely to feel a connection to it.

And what makes it difficult is so often the ones most likely to not recognize the importance of representation are the ones already being represented. I call it the standard of whiteness. Others call it white supremacy. The standard of whiteness means that the white experience is the standard everything else is measured against–how we act, how we look, how we think, how we speak, how we dress. Until we no longer have that as the standard and people can identify as they feel most comfortable, show up as they feel, say, “This is who I am.” Until then, people won’t feel that there’s representation of them, their thought, their culture, within an organization, and they won’t feel connection.

One of the things that I hear often that people will say is, and it’s been said to me many, many times, “Oh, I don’t see color when I look at you. I just see you.” Well, then you don’t see me because my color is a part of who I am and how I show up in this world. I’m okay with being a black woman.  hen you tell me that you don’t see color, you are again saying, “I want you to feel like I see you just like me, and I’m white.”

It’s what we call a micro aggression. These are micro aggressions oftentimes are said in the workplace and can impact a person’s experience and make them not want to work there.



There is a heightened awareness that we should be doing more to increase diversity and create inclusivity, and this work is coming from a place of positive intention. But that final step of creating a sense of belonging is often more difficult. What I’ve experienced as a woman is a sense of, “We’ve made space at the table generally. I don’t mean you harm.” And it’s that latter idea I find it so difficult to get past because just because you don’t mean harm doesn’t mean that you mean best.



Right? And you can’t speak for me all the time, you know? In the simplest terms, I’m talking about inclusion—meaning having a voice. If you take the time to listen what I have to say, even if it’s uncomfortable and you don’t necessarily agree with it, or you can’t identify with it, I still have a voice. But what’s most important is belonging. That’s being at the table, being able to speak, and then being heard.



We’ve been having conversations within AHP’s DEIB committees that inclusivity without belonging creates the new tokenism. “We’ve made this space. You’ve got to figure out your own way through now.” Or a sense of “Look at us, we’ve improved our numbers. We look better, we look different.” Without focusing on belonging there is also an emphasis on visual diversity, rather than whole self as you were referring.



Before we go on, I want to mention some statistics from a survey on inclusion, diversity, equity, and access conducted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals. Thirty-seven percent of respondents left their job because they felt isolated or unwelcome by their coworkers. A lot of times we think that it’s just the supervisors or the leadership making them feel this way. And 60% of people in the study who were black left the job because of discrimination and did not report it. That’s the one that really gets to me.

What’s really important to me is when we’re talking about more diversity, whether it’s fundraising in healthcare, higher education, or anywhere else, it’s not just about recruiting people, it’s about retaining them. If they don’t have a good experience, and they leave the organization, it’s likely they’re going to leave the profession because they will attribute that to more than just their experience at that organization. They will attribute it to the fundraising profession. And we’ll never experience this great fundraising profession because they’re not going to come back.

There are steps that you have to take. Before any organization really tries to increase diversity on their team, they should take an assessment, sort of a temperature check of the organization, to find out what their employees are already thinking. How do they feel the culture is? I’ve done this with organizations before, and the leadership has been really surprised to learn how their staff feel. We can hear things like:

“Well, we feel the leadership isn’t diverse.”

“We don’t feel that they care.”

“We feel that there’s some racism among the leadership.”

You need to know what your own team is saying, because you might have to do some diversity training before you open up and bring others in. It’s sort of like cleaning up your house before you invite guests in. How are we addressing implicit bias? How are we addressing equity?

I heard somebody say the other day equality is when everybody gets a pair of size nine shoes. Equity is everybody gets a pair of shoes, but they don't get the right size. It’s more than just making sure everybody has the same thing. Everybody might not need the same thing. We all need different things according to our abilities.

When you bring people in, you are learning how to adjust. What are the things that you do often that you don’t take into consideration? Does the team always go down to the local pub after work for everybody to have drinks and socialize? Well, you might have people who have to get home because they have children to care for. Or you might have people who don’t drink alcohol or who are vegans, and so you might take the opportunity to vary the experience to be more inclusive.

When you give stretch assignments, reflect on how frequently you vary who you give them to. Do those people all look the same? Do they have a great connection with you? If so, try giving those opportunities to someone that feels less familiar, less comfortable.

Speaking of feeling comfortable, we often hire "what’s in the mirror." Just because you have a great interview with someone, and that person really feels comfortable to you—you like the same music, you both golf—that should not be confused with their ability to do the job.

Lastly, I always suggest that if you’ve not invited diverse professionals often, and you have people who are new, it might be a great idea to partner with an organization like AADO or bring in a consultant who can act as the liaison between that employee and their supervisor or leadership to ensure that you are dealing with things fairly. Sometimes it can be confused as an issue of racism when it really is an employee challenged with a job that isn’t right for them.



How do you think creating a more diverse fundraising workforce supports our broader community?



How fundraisers interact with donors is huge. I’m part of a group creating a fundraisers bill of rights, outlining how we engage with donors and what the expectations are for how we should be treated. As fundraisers we are moving into a time where we’re setting the expectations of what we will accept in terms of how we are treated by donors.

How we show up with our donors and how we demonstrate that respect and appreciation of different cultures will be a learning experience for some. We’re helping contribute to that culture of change. And I’m having more and more fundraisers who are looking to move into the healthcare space, because it resonates with them with their passion, their desire to be in the community and to help. To make that connection. To give where their passions lie.

I think that will connect with the communities they’re serving. They can be the link between the community, the donor, and healthcare. I think there’s a bigger role that a fundraiser can play, and I’m hearing this as more and more are coming to me saying, I want to transition to healthcare.



If you had one ask of our broader membership, what would it be?



Our profession has the opportunity to be so diverse. We engage with people every day. And oftentimes out of fear or lack of knowledge, we don’t really know how to connect. We don’t want to venture out because of fear and uncertainty.

So, my one request would be for each person to really reach outside of their comfort zone and connect with someone who they can connect to the profession. That could be someone of color or someone with hearing loss. That could be someone who expresses their gender identity differently. That could be someone with different religious observances.

If everybody did that, just one person, I really feel that the profession could grow representation. And we wouldn’t be looking at a shortage of professionals in the next decade. There’s just so much opportunity. 

This interview, which has been edited and condensed, first appeared in the winter 2022 issue of Healthcare Philanthropy. AHP members can read the original article here.


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Meet The Author

Birgit Smith Burton
Birgit Smith Burton
Executive Director of Foundation Relations
Georgia Tech

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