Stories of Giving: Dr. Ellen Burts-Cooper

Photo of Dr. Ellen Burts-Cooper

“As a business owner, you have to wear multiple hats and you learn not to waste resources. Everything you spend has to have maximum impact. You want to do the same thing in philanthropy: make sure your dollars create a ripple effect.” – Dr. Ellen Burts-Cooper

Entrepreneur Dr. Ellen Burts-Cooper started giving back at an early age because she knew first-hand the impact philanthropy can make.

“Scholarships funded my education,” she said. “I give back because somebody did it for me.”

She started helping other students buy books, computers and supplies when she was still a grad student herself at Virginia Tech. As a scholarship student, she knew exactly what those funds covered—and what gaps they left.

“I saw a need—people right in front of me who needed help,” she said.

She then began funding scholarships in her 30s, while simultaneously building her career, and aligned with the Cleveland Foundation in 2011 to establish the Bagby, Palmer Memorial Scholarship. Named to honor her mother and mother-in-law, the fund helps students in Cleveland’s inner-ring suburbs attend college.

“When I was just a kid, my mom once said ‘One day, you’ll be able to give away a sum of money, and you won’t miss it, but the person you give it to won’t ever forget,’” Dr. Burts-Cooper said.

When her business took off, Dr. Burts-Cooper was proud to prove her mother right.


Maximizing impact

While she holds a doctorate in organic chemistry, Dr. Burts-Cooper has made her biggest mark in the boardroom, not the lab. Her thriving consulting firm Improve Consulting and Training Group helps more than 80 clients across the country do business better.

Dr. Burts-Cooper’s professional life mirrors her philanthropic one. As a Lean Six Sigma Master Black Belt, she helps clients root out inefficiencies, reduce waste and think creatively, and her own entrepreneurial bent informs her approach to charitable giving.

“As a business owner, I’ve learned to be creative,” she said. “You have to wear multiple hats and you learn not to waste resources. Everything you spend has to have maximum impact. You want to do the same thing in philanthropy: make sure your dollars create a ripple effect.”

By supporting scholarships, Dr. Burts-Cooper amplifies the impact of her charitable dollars by putting students on the path to success—and hopefully planting a seed that inspires future philanthropy when they too find themselves in a position to give back. And, because building high-performing teams is a key part of her business, she loves giving to organizations that demonstrate teamwork by pooling their resources to make their work reach further.


Celebrating African American philanthropy

The desire to amplify her giving is part of what drew Burts-Cooper to the Cleveland Foundation. “It also helps when philanthropists team up,” she said, and that’s exactly what the Cleveland Foundation does: connects donors so they can give together through the foundation to maximize impact.

It’s also part of what inspired her to get involved with the Cleveland Foundation African American Philanthropy Committee. A member since 2011 and co-chair since 2018, she said focusing on the rich legacy of giving in the African American community helps boost the impact of that philanthropy.

Events like the upcoming African American Philanthropy Summit, which the committee convenes every two years, shine a much-needed spotlight on an often-overlooked giving community.

“Oftentimes, African American philanthropy is not as visible, and I want people to be aware that giving happens at every level, and it happens among every community,” Dr. Burts-Cooper said.



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