Originally created 07/13/97

Benson helping United Way reach potential



When Keith Benson took over as president and chief professional officer of the United Way of the CSRA at the end of 1994, he knew he'd have to make some changes if he was going to help the organization reach its potential.

For several years, it steadily raised a little less than $3 million for the more than 30 health and human service charities it supports in the community, while other similar-size communities such as Winston-Salem, N.C., Chattanooga, Tenn., and Savannah raised three or four times that amount, he said.

"We were told we couldn't do this in Augusta. We couldn't grow the campaign," he said.

The key to these other cities' successful fund-raising efforts came in the form of gifts greater than $1,000, called leadership gifts. In Augusta, the leadership-giving threshold is $500.

"We knew a lot of communities in which 20 to 30 percent of the total dollars raised came from leadership giving. Leadership giving is the fastest-growing part of the United Way nationally," he said.

In 1995, leadership gifts accounted for only 2.08 percent of the $3.1 million raised by the organization.

Fueled by a $100,000 challenge grant, the 1996 campaign set out to get even more leadership givers, and it was a huge success.

Last year, the United Way raised $3.47 million, a 12.4 percent increase over 1995, with leadership gifts more than doubling. In 1996, leadership gifts amounted to $664,220, compared with only $282,348 in 1995.

"The average increase for campaigns our size was 3.9 percent. We tripled in our production," said John Mulherin, vice president of fund raising. "We're kicking it pretty good."

The United Way also created its own chapter of an elite national United Way giving group - the Alexis de Tocqueville Society - for those who give in excess of $10,000. Eight families signed on as founding members in the inaugural group.

Other United Ways are taking notice at the organization's advances.

In the spring, Mr. Benson was asked to teach two classes on major gifts development at a regional United Way meeting in Charleston, S.C.

"After one year, we are instructing other United Ways. That's a sign we are on the right track," he said.

One major goal for the United Way is to have a $5 million fund-raising campaign in 2000. To help with this, the organization is bringing on a new staff person to cultivate that large gifts and planned giving division.

Kathleene Pennington starts July 14.

"We have 12 staff and have had 12 staff for years. Imagine what we could do with a staff person devoted to leadership giving," Mr. Benson said.

Ms. Pennington's task will be to direct donors' eyes in other directions besides the standard payroll deduction or check. Donors can give stocks or other securities, land or other gifts of value or they can include the United Way in their will, Mr. Benson said.

"We're asking donors to leave a legacy for their kids and grandkids," he said.