Andy Burness and Hope Gleicher arrive bearing snacks.
But before they have a chance to open the popcorn, block of cheese, and crackers they brought to Burness’ office in downtown Bethesda, where they’ve come to discuss—with great reluctance—being named the Community Foundation in Montgomery County’s 2019 Philanthropists of the Year, each warmly greets a custodian they see on the way in.
The young man holds down two full-time jobs, one of which is cleaning the building that’s home to the eponymous public interest communications firm that Burness started more than three decades ago. He and the custodian used to converse in Spanish until one day, the man, a native of Central America, spoke to Burness in English. “I want to better myself,” Burness recalls him saying. “I want to do more than just clean these buildings.”
That was all Burness needed to hear. He lent the man a book called So You Want to Start a Business! and gave him an old computer.
“The idea was, what can we do to help?” Burness says.
That’s essentially the question that has driven the couple’s personal and professional lives. Over the years, they’ve given hundreds of thousands of dollars to dozens of national and local charities and nonprofits, and countless hours to the causes they hold dear.
“Philanthropy has always been a piece of it, but really they’re full of goodness,” says Sally Rudney, founding executive director of the Community Foundation in Montgomery County. “They want to make a difference in their own community. They don’t just say that, or do that on the side—it’s a part of their daily life.”
Through his company, which works with nonprofits and a few governmental entities, Burness has focused on issues related to health, science, poverty and social justice. Gleicher, who has run three nonprofits in Maryland, is now the chief strategy officer at Identity, which is based in Gaithersburg and serves Latino youths and families in Montgomery County. Together, the couple has supported organizations from the American Civil Liberties Union to The Universities at Shady Grove.
Although they’re each motivated by a shared desire to be a “net-plus” in society, injustices bother them in different ways. “For him, it’s ‘that doesn’t make sense,’ and for me, it’s ‘that isn’t fair,’ ” Gleicher says.
Burness can’t understand how more than 60,000 people in one of the wealthiest counties in the country don’t know where their next meal will come from. Gleicher finds it patently unfair that everyone who works hard isn’t paid a living wage. They’ve made it their life’s work to right these wrongs, but they find it awkward to be honored for their efforts. Sitting at a circular table in the seventh-floor corner office, surrounded by books, African art, and photos of Burness’ family, friends and sports hero Derek Jeter, they dive into the discomfort.
“It’s very flattering, and it’s very nice of people to want to recognize anything about us,” Gleicher says. “But it’s also kind of absurd. We have been lucky enough to have more than we need. Why wouldn’t we share?”
Burness, 67, grew up in Connecticut in a family with values he describes as “progressive.” He attended Duke University, where he served as the college newspaper’s sports editor. (The new dog in the household is named Zion, after former Blue Devils basketball phenom Zion Williamson.) After graduating, Burness worked on Terry Sanford’s 1976 presidential campaign before coming to Washington, D.C., as a legislative assistant on health and education for U.S. Rep. L. Richardson Preyer of North Carolina. Burness served as public information officer for the first presidential commission to examine medical ethics (a note he received from President Jimmy Carter hangs on his office wall), then went to the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to work in external relations. He started Burness in 1986.
“There weren’t many people doing social change communication, the notion of trying to use communications as a tool to influence change for good,” he says. “I had a background in ethics, I knew some journalists. Starting this company felt like the best idea for using my particular skills.”