Originally created 11/30/97

United Way leader gives vision, helps surpass fund-raising goals



Keith Benson says he saw the good and the bad of society growing up at the height of the civil rights movement in one of the poorest areas in the country - the foothills of the Mississippi Delta.

Mr. Benson, 43, the president and chief professional officer of the United Way of the CSRA, said, "I remember going to the doctor's office as a child and going through the colored entrance and drinking from colored water fountains."

But he also remembers his loving grandmother, whom he describes as a "strong black woman."

She opened her home to black and white civil rights activists, teachers and nuns who all believed that people of all races could come together to make this country a better one.

That idealism rubbed off on the impressionable young man and has remained with him today.

"I've wanted to try and help people and leave the world a better place than I found it," said the softspoken Mr. Benson.

Hoping to right all the world's wrongs by becoming a lawyer, Mr. Benson attended Jackson State University, where he received his bachelor's and master's degrees. And yes, the 6-foot-8-inch man replied, he did play basketball there as well.

He decided against pursuing a career in law and looked to the areas of community service to achieve his goals of helping others. His first service was with Volunteers in Service To America.

In 1984, he began working with the United Way in Cleveland.

"I was checking around to find out what type of organization I'd like to be a part of," he said. "Everywhere I turned, people were talking about the United Way."

While in Cleveland, which has a staff of about 170 people, Mr. Benson wore a number of hats and learned about all aspects of the United Way, from its direct services and community initiatives to its campaign strategies, fund distribution and public policies.

"It was a wonderful training ground," he said. "I was the 30th staff person to leave there and head a United Way."

The Cleveland United Way was a leader among United Ways during Mr. Benson's tenure. The largest amount it raised in one year was $52 million. It was tops in terms of per capita giving, and it was way ahead of its counterparts in gaining the support of community leaders.

It was the first to challenge people to give more than $10,000 annually, and its 10-Plus Club was the forerunner of today's national Alexis de Tocqueville Society.

"It had 200 10-Plus members long before other United Ways even thought about it," he said.

In 1994, the Augusta organization was going through many changes. Its longtime president, Marlin Sherman, resigned, and several key staff members moved out of the area.

The charity had been foundering in its fund raising for several years. For three consecutive years, it had attempted raising $3 million, only to reach just below that figure. In 1992, it raised $2.921 million; in 1993, it raised $2.927 million; and in 1994, it fell to $2.903 million.

Toward the end of the year, Mr. Benson stepped in as its head.

"I think the changes have been positive. He brought a new energy, a new enthusiasm and a new community involvement," said Keven Mack, director of community and economic development for AugustaRichmond County.

Mr. Mack has served on the United Way board since before Mr. Benson's arrival.

During the early part of 1995, Mr. Benson, with the staff and board of directors, looked over the previous campaigns to find the organization's strengths and weaknesses, and he soon unveiled an ambitious goal - to have a one year $5 million fundraising campaign by the year 2000.

"People told me, `You'll never be able to raise that kind of money in Augusta,' `Augusta's not that generous,' `No one will ever give you a $100,000 gift,"' he said.

However, Mr. Benson has proved the naysayers wrong in many areas.

In 1995, the United Way broke through the $3 million mark, raising a record $3.103 million. Two more record years followed. In 1996, it raised $3.47 million, and just a few weeks ago, the organization announced it had raised $3.909 million.

"Keith doesn't deserve all the credit," said J. Donald Johnson, campaign chairman in 1994 and board chairman in 1996. "We tried to reinvent ourselves with new volunteer leadership as well. We were kind of adrift before Keith got here. We were doing the same thing year after year. Charities have to be flexible. In times like these, you have to be creative."

This year's and last year's campaign gains were sparked by a creative $100,000 challenge grant for all new and increased leadership givers or those who give more than $500 annually to the charity.

Last year, a local chapter of the Alexis de Tocqueville Society (for those who give more than $10,000) was founded with nine members, including Boone Knox and the Knox Foundation, William S. Morris III and family, state Sen. and Mrs. Charles Walker, and J. Timothy Shelnut. That number is now up to 10.

In January, the Knox Foundation donated the 15-building Telfair Inn complex in the 300 blocks of Telfair and Greene streets to the organization, which has turned it into the Peter Seymour Knox Community Service Center.

"I think the biggest difference is that Keith is very successful in developing relationships with key community and business leaders," said Mr. Johnson.

Mr. Benson said, "Only about one-third of the board were CEOs (chief executive officers) or No. 2 in 1994. It's hard to get a job done if you don't have the right people at the table. Now three-fourths are CEOs or No. 2."

Among the 45 members on the current board are Shirley A.R. Lewis, president of Paine College; Louis Wall, general manager of WJBFTV; R.W. Allen, president and CEO of R.W. Allen & Associates; Terry D. Elam, president of Augusta Technical Institute; Charles G. Larke, superintendent of Richmond County schools; Martin Lawrence, plant manager at Procter & Gamble; Charlene Sizemore, CEO of Sizemore Personnel; and Augusta Mayor Larry Sconyers.

Gaining the support of the community leadership wasn't difficult, said Mr. Benson.

"People don't give to needs," he said. "They want dazzling dreams and visions ... a shared vision of what this community could be with their help."

Once presented with those dazzling dreams and the ability of the 30 United Way agencies to help achieve them, people don't mind giving their money, he said.

And the community has gotten behind that dream.

Three years later, those who brought Mr. Benson to Augusta said they are glad they did.

"We weren't lookng for someone to dot every "i" and cross every "t." We wanted someone with a vision of where we needed to go," said Mr. Johnson, who served on the search committee.

"Keith's not a miracle worker, but as a volunteer, it's nice to look back a couple of years later and know you made a good decision."