Originally created 02/21/99

Augusta's United Way group serves as national model



Four years ago, there were those who said establishing an Alexis de Tocqueville Society in Augusta wouldn't happen.

"People said we couldn't get any (members)," said Keith Benson, president of the United Way of the CSRA.

To qualify for the elite group, an annual donation of $10,000 or more is required.

Now the Augusta Alexis de Tocqueville Society is a model for other United Ways seeking to start one. The group started in 1996 with eight members; there are now 15.

"We say at national to talk to people in Augusta," said Ruth Maldonado, senior fellow of the Mega Gifts Institute of the United Way of America, headquartered in Alexandria, Va. "Keith Benson did everything right."

The major "right" thing, said Ms. Maldonado, was finding a sponsor to issue a challenge grant during the campaign.

For three years, a local businessman pledged to match new and increased leadership gifts (those in excess of $500 annually) up to $100,000.

"Challenge matching grants are the best thing you can do," she said. "When someone has faith in the leader of the United Way, people feel trust in the United Way, and other people step up. It creates its own synergy."

Another important key that has led to the success, Ms. Maldonado said, has been the five-year plan Mr. Benson laid out when he first came to Augusta. He saw the United Way raising $5 million in the 2000 campaign and providing more services to those in need.

"It's not just about giving money," she said.

The current campaign is still under way. As of Friday, the United Way had reached 91 percent of its goal, raising $3.71 million of its $4.1 million goal. The organization will announce its final totals at the annual meeting Wednesday at the Augusta-Richmond County Civic Center.

Nationally, major gifts including membership in the de Tocqueville Society have been on the upswing.

"It's been cited as the number one reason for growth in campaigns," said Ms. Maldonado.

While all of the 1998 figures are not in yet, de Tocqueville Society membership nationally showed a jump in 1997 to 10,950 members, up from 9,124 members the previous year.

The United Way of America has created the Mega Gifts Institute to focus on individual givers of $100,000 and more.

In 1998, there were 25 new Million Dollar Roundtable members nationally, bringing the number to 131. Nationally, there are 213 who give at least $100,000.

Several cities in Georgia are part of this trend, including Dalton and Columbus. Columbus has 63 de Tocqueville members. In Dalton, the de Tocqueville society jumped from 29 members in 1997 to 51 members last year.

"It's no great mystery," he said of the tremendous growth in large gifts. "One of the reasons is they've never asked for resources of that degree before. United Way is in the unique position to turn dollars into services. We are asking people of genuine wealth to give commensurate with their means."

Although some may argue that Dalton is successful only because of the wealthy carpet manufacturers there, Mr. Aft believes de Tocqueville can work anywhere.

"In every community of any size, there is indigenous wealth," he said. "In Augusta, there are wonderful opportunities."

Charmain Z. Brackett can be reached at (803) 441-6927 or czbrackett@hotmail.com.