Women of Influence: Big Brothers Big Sisters of Birmingham CEO Sue Johnson


For over a quarter of a century Sue Johnson‘s hands have been working in service to the state of Alabama.

Johnson has spent her life in Alabama. Born in Birmingham, she remembers her childhood days spent climbing in the dirt on the first turn of Talladega Speedway, which her grandfather, John P. Moss of Moss Thornton Construction, helped designed and build. In 3rd grade her family relocated to Selma, and Johnson finished high school there before going on to attend Judson College, a women’s college in Marion, Ala., where she discovered her love for Social Work.

She graduated in 1984 and after holding a few different jobs within the field, she ultimately found her calling in 1991 at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Birminghama non-profit organization whose mission is to “provide children facing adversity with strong and enduring, professionally supported one-to-one relationships that change their lives for the better, forever.”

Throughout the years, Johnson has worked in many areas within Big Brothers Big Sisters; starting as a Program Director, and rising to board member. She became Executive Director in 1999, and is the current CEO.

Thanks to her efforts, Big Brothers Big Sisters was named Non-Profit of the Year in 2011 and 2013 by the Birmingham Business Alliance. The organization has won various other awards including the Gold Standard Award from Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, the Parent’s Choice Award, and the Children’s Advocate Award.

Johnson herself was named Non-Profit CEO of the Year by the Birmingham Business Journal in 2017.

But Johnson’s reach stretches far beyond the Magic City — she has invested deeply in lives all across the state. Alabama Governors’ Bob Riley, Robert Bentley and Kay Ivey all appointed her to serve on the Serve Alabama Commission as a State Commissioner — an honor Johnson says has taught her much about how state level services coordinate, and helped her bridge the gap between state serves and non-profit services.

She is the current Board President for CAP (City Action Partnership), and previously served as President of the Big Brothers Big Sisters of Alabama State Association, where she now serves as Treasurer. Johnson is a current member of The Women’s Network, the Birmingham Children’s Policy Council, and the National Professional Association of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America. She also previously served as a Board member for Legal AID and Mentor Alabama.

In September of 2010 Johnson added “small business owner” to her already impressive resume when she and her husband became owners and operators of Dog Days of Birmingham, a business located in downtown.

“Being a small business owner whose business model includes giving back to the community makes my life whole. As my father says; ‘the world is round,’ and I firmly believe that we ‘reap what we sow,'” said Johnson. “My husband and I try to live this way. We have created a good life that provides us with what we need and gives us what we need to help others too. We are so blessed to have jobs that we love and that are successful.”

Johnson is a wise woman, with many years of experience in the professional world, and was kind enough to answer some of Alabama Today’s questions about her life, work and influences:

How have other women influenced your success?

I try to always honor other strong women as it has taken us, as women, a long time to be taken seriously by many people, including ourselves. I have been so lucky to have been guided by strong and supportive women. From my mother and aunt, to women I have worked for, women I have served with on Boards and Commissions, and women I have gone to school with. I have always been told by my mother, “if it were easy anyone could do it.” 

What shaped your desire to help and mentor children?

I live under the belief that children can only become what they can see. I grew up wanting to become a school teacher but when I entered college and took some social work classes I quickly realized that is the area I wanted to work in. It allowed me to work with the entire family and connect resources within the community, bringing them all together to solve problems; I found my niche.

I worked several different social work jobs; a nursing home, a battered women’s shelter, a hospital and finally Big Brothers Big Sisters. I realized being in a preventative agency that served children through mentoring was where I wanted to be and have remained here for 23 years. I have seen the impact that something as simple as a long lasting friendship has on a child who may be friendless, lacking confidence, scared or being bullied. I have seen that same child walk across the stage and receive his diploma and go on to gain successful employment, stay away from drugs, become a doting father,  and a contributing member of our community, hundreds of times.

What advice would you give to young women seeking jobs in the non-profit sector?

You may not get rich but your soul will flourish.

My favorite thing about the non-profit sector is that it allows you to be creative in your decision making. You may not have the financial resources to solve your problems so you have to be patient sometimes or you have to find other people who can use their resources to help you.

My other piece of advice is always think big, look at what other successful non-profits are doing and don’t let anyone tell you something can’t be done if you really believe it will help the human condition or make a difference in lives around you. Keep your perspective and always know why you are doing what you are doing.

Keep close to your mission, stay humble, and take breaks.

In Johnson’s rare spare time she likes to work in her garden, travel with her husband, and play with her three dogs and her grandchildren.

For her service to the children of Birmingham, the State of Alabama, and to dog lovers in downtown Birmingham… it’s is undeniable — Sue Johnson is clearly a woman of influence.