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Looking Back on the Legacy of Charles Stephens

February 27, 2018

By Birgit Burton, Chair, AFP Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access Committee

birgit burtonCharles R. Stephens, CFRE left a huge footprint in the fundraising profession. He accomplished a great deal in his efforts to move the diversity needle, most notably by serving as the first African American chair of the AFP board (1992-1993) and working to increase the number of people of diverse backgrounds to the profession.  Many will never know him personally, but the impact of his work in bringing a focus on diversity and inclusion in the profession is his enduring legacy.    

As I reflect on all that Charles Stephens accomplished, I can’t help but remember my personal experience of meeting him over 30 years ago as a young professional, and how that meeting helped shaped the career and opportunities I’ve had in the fundraising profession. Like many others, I was a young fundraiser who stumbled into the profession with little experience and no formal training. I didn’t know of any fundraisers who looked like me—until I met Charles Stephens.

Charles was well-respected, knowledgeable, and a fundraising professional of color. It was a timely meeting—I was frustrated and contemplating leaving the field. A colleague suggested I reach out to him while we were both attending a meeting of the United Negro College Fund in Miami, Florida. Charles responded and met me in the food court of the nearby mall. 

Charles spent nearly three hours with me, providing much-needed advice and counsel. He recommended that I join AFP (then NSFRE) and attend the upcoming international conference. I left with 10 pages of notes and a newfound excitement about my chosen profession. (Not long after, I joined AFP and have been an active member since.) 

Charles remained my mentor until he passed 5 years ago. Over the years, I have met hundreds of people who also were fortunate to call him their mentor. The AFP Diversity Scholarship established in memory of Charles Stephens is a wonderful—and fitting—tribute to a man who was a champion for diversity and inclusion in our great profession.  

Charles’ passion and efforts changed the way the fundraising profession looked at diversity. His legacy can still be felt today as AFP continues his work through the IDEA Committee (Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access), which is the next step in our mission to make important changes that serve as an inspiration to all nonprofit organizations working to provide a welcoming space to diverse communities. 

Cheers to Charles Stephens—friend, mentor, and inspiration for all of us. 

Read more about Charles Stephens’ impact on AFP and the fundraising profession http://www.afpnet.org/Audiences/NewsReleaseDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=15282.