Opening vistas and fueling dreams through Adopt A Class

PHILANTHROPIST OF THE YEAR: Bill Burwinkel 

You don’t have to convince Bill Burwinkel, winner of this year’s National Philanthropy Day Philanthropist of the Year award, about the importance of a good education and career guidance.

Philanthropist of the Year Bill Burwinkel, founder of Adopt A Class
Philanthropist of the Year Bill Burwinkel by Tina Gutierrez for Movers and Makers

After quitting high school to join the Army (he later got his GED), Burwinkel bounced from job to job, never able to get a promotion because he lacked a college degree. Finally, he started his own company in 1983 – National Marketshare Group, a consumer-products brokerage firm anchored in the renovated West End Bank building in Lower Price Hill – but struggled for years, sometimes sleeping in an old Buick and showering in truck stops while on the road, selling items such as automotive air fresheners and melamine ashtrays.

So it’s fitting that Burwinkel, 72, is best known these days as the founder and driving force behind Adopt A Class, a highly successful mentoring program that puts teams of business workers into classrooms, especially in high-poverty neighborhoods. The idea is to open students’ eyes to career possibilities – and show them what it takes to get there.

The program serves more than 6,500 K-8 students in 37 schools throughout Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, with more than 3,500 active volunteers. More than 90 percent of teachers surveyed said their students have shown noticeable improvement in writing and social skills.

Burwinkel and his team at National Marketshare started the program in 2003 at Oyler School in Lower Price Hill as a one-on-one tutoring program, but quickly discovered that “adopting” a class as a group – with team mentoring and career guidance – worked better.

“We sat down as a team and came up with the idea,” Burwinkel said. “The program has evolved from a pen-pal program and a couple of parties to a group career mentoring and role model program.”

Adopt A Class is “built by business people for business people,” he said. “We know the most valuable thing a person has is their time. So we can take and help you maximize your time and maximize your input, and your impact is going to be a life-changing experience for many of these kids. You’re going to be the person sitting there and telling them, you know, if you work hard and get good grades you can do anything you can put your mind to.”

An impressive resume

But Burwinkel’s involvement in the community goes way beyond Adopt A Class. It’s an impressive resume that shows why he’s been chosen Philanthropist of the Year:

He was involved on the Dan Beard Council of Boy Scouts of America board for 21 years, fundraising and managing the organization’s national jamboree, and earning the Scouts’ highest award given to non-Scouts.

Seven years ago, he was appointed a commissioner of Great Parks of Hamilton County, one of Adopt A Class’ partners, pushing for strong community engagement, a solid infrastructure plan and expansion of facilities.

He’s joined long-time friend and neighbor Buddy LaRosa to help lead Golden Gloves for the past 12 years, building its board and increasing its fundraising to work with 3CDC on a new recreation center in Over-the-Rhine.

And he’s been a tireless advocate for West Side communities, especially Lower Price Hill, where he has worked on various initiatives for nearly 30 years with the goal of helping it “not to be treated like the stepchild nobody wants.”

A member of Leadership Cincinnati Class 31, Burwinkel has received the Rotary Club of Cincinnati’s Jefferson Award for community service.

“I spend all my time today involved with paying back by paying forward and sharing some of my successes,” he said.

It’s a concept impressed on him by Marty Harrity, the manager who hired him for a key sales job with Pioneer Products that led to his starting National Marketshare.

Years later, after both had left Pioneer, Burwinkel ran into Harrity at a trade show. “So I asked Marty, how can I pay you back? And he said, ‘Bill, you don’t pay back, you pay forward. And it’s really not an option, it’s an obligation.’ That was the first time it really impacted me.”

Almost a West Sider

Many who know Burwinkel would be surprised to learn that though he’s lived on the West Side since getting his first job out of the Army – “I’ve been here for over 50 years now, and probably another four or five years, I might even be considered a West Sider,” he said – he grew up in Forestville, a community in Anderson Township.

He wound up in the Army at age 17, with the help of a little Social Security number trickery, “because I was stubborn. And my dad (a schoolteacher) was a strict disciplinarian. I didn’t do well with that. So I ran away from home. Dad said, ‘You finish high school and go to college, or you go into the Army.’ So I said, ‘Sign me up.’ ”

He served three years in Vietnam as a chef. Back in Cincinnati, he got his GED and “had probably six or seven different jobs but could never get promoted because I didn’t have a college degree.”

After being laid off from one of those jobs, Burwinkel found himself looking at the want ads in the paper, where it seemed every position was either for a car salesman or an insurance agent. 

“I don’t look good in plaid, so I went for the insurance,” he said.

Finally, when his wife Beth (they celebrated their 43rd anniversary on Sept. 15) was settled into a job at Drackett with good benefits, “I pursued this idea about starting our own company. She said, you need to do it. And if it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t have started the company.”

At first it was rough – long sales trips, no money for hotel rooms, a cooler of food in the trunk of the old Buick. 

“Three or four years into it, I wasn’t sure I had made the right decision, but Beth kept encouraging me, and today I’m chairman of the board. Next year, the company will be 40 years old.” 

Beth Burwinkel has been treasurer of the firm since 1988.

More than writing checks

When Oyler School first approached Burwinkel’s company, “we were fresh meat. Nobody had moved into Lower Price Hill with a business in 20 years until we moved in. Initially, I just wrote some checks to the school … but finally, as a team, we decided we were going to sign up for tutoring.”

That volunteer effort, and its evolution into Adopt A Class, has helped transform students’ educational experience. Adopter teams make monthly visits to classrooms, devise various educational projects and sponsor field trips to participating businesses. Some examples Burwinkel cited:

Great Parks walks students through the process of planning, designing, managing and maintaining a park, then takes students to a park with the plans and drawings they’ve created to see how they’d work in real life.

Merrill Lynch divides a class into teams, each of which manages a portfolio during the school year.

Neyer Holdings divides a class into “communities,” each of which has a “vacant building” in it and must decide what the community can do with the building while making money at the same time.

The experience can open new vistas for students. Burwinkel said he’s been told that before Adopt A Class came to one school, students would talk about becoming, say, a hair stylist, an NBA player or a rapper. 

“Today, they say things like, I want to be a data analyst for P&G. I want to be a research chemist. I want to be a medical tech. I want to be an accountant. Now they have so much more to dream about than they had before.”

“The schools that we go into are over 75 percent Title I,” he said. “That means 75 percent of kids are below poverty level. … They don’t have all the resources, all the things that other kids do who aren’t in that environment. But you know what? They’re as smart as any kid. They just don’t have the opportunity.

“And that’s what drives me.”

A boon for businesses

But here’s the twist: Adopt A Class can help the participating businesses as well.

“What I’ve seen consistently is that when an adopter starts with the program, their thought is, ‘We’re going to have an impact on the kids.’ But when they get into the program, they start to realize what it does for their company and their teams.” 

In short, it fosters communication and team-building within businesses, especially when they “reach across departments and cross-populate the program,” Burwinkel said. 

That’s especially valuable in the COVID era with many employees still working remotely. Burwinkel recalled visiting one business recently in an impressive office building full of employee amenities – but virtually empty of employees. The firm’s head of HR told him it had 375 people on the payroll.

“I said, ‘Where are they?’ He said, ‘Bill, here’s our dilemma. I have people I hired back in 2020, but I still haven’t seen them.’ They see Adopt A Class as a way to help re-engage their people and bring them together. And it worked. They had 30-some people sign up.”

Burwinkel’s next goal is ambitious: “100 percent coverage for Adopt A Class. We’re serving about 60 percent of kids in Greater Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky. So there’s 40 percent of kids out there that aren’t involved in the program yet.” 

He said that any student, regardless of neighborhood or income, can benefit from the program.

Learning he was to receive the Philanthropist of the Year award left him feeling “embarrassed and humble,” he said. “But I’m excited about the recognition, because Adopt A Class is a well-hidden secret. We’re working to change that, and this will dramatically increase our visibility. Businesses are seeing first-hand what the results are. That’s what I’m most excited about.”

National Philanthropy Day 2022

National Philanthropy Day is set aside by the Association of Fundraising Professionals to recognize individuals, organizations and businesses inspiring change through nonprofit organizations. AFP Greater Cincinnati Chapter helps members and nonprofits practice ethical and effective fundraising to improve our community. 

Area nonprofits can nominate exceptional donors, volunteers and friends. Honorees are selected by a diverse committee of AFP stakeholders. Read more about this year’s honorees:

National Philanthropy Day Luncheon

Nov. 17, 11 a.m.-1 p.m., Music Hall Ballroom


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