The Benevon Story
The following is a more complete statement of the origins of Benevon as told by founder Terry Axelrod.
I love nonprofit organizations. I have a Master's Degree in Social Work from the University of Michigan. I have been a founder of three full-fledged 501(c)(3)'s and of several other programs within existing nonprofits. The first organization provided home health care in the mid-1970s. Within a year and a half of its inception, it had several hundred employees and an annual budget, in today's dollars, of over $10 million.
Being young and naive, with no management experience whatsoever, I learned quickly that fundraising was essential to survival in the nonprofit world.
The phenomenal growth rate of this organization (about 12% per month!) masked the critical shortfall in operating funds, until the growth began to plateau. At that point, as our first fundraising venture, I decided to go to Greece to run, literally, the Greek Marathon. Yes, the historic route of the ancient runner, starting in the little town of Marathon and ending in the magnificent marble stadium in Athens built in 1896 for the first modern Olympic games.
This was in 1978, about one year before the advent of "thons." It's hard to imagine fundraising in the world before "thons" (walkathons, dance-a-thons, etc.). This event captured the fancy of many individuals in my hometown, Seattle, Washington. Thanks to wonderful media coverage, we raised $25,000 that first year, all in pledges from individuals for every mile I ran.
By the next year, 1979, "thons" were in and marathon running had hit big. Instead of having just one runner, we decided to have twenty-six runners (for the twenty-six miles in a marathon), each raise money through pledges. We had a star-studded team. Several prominent CEOs, local celebrities, and a well-rounded cast of others. We raised $225,000 the second year. Not too shabby.
It was in the third year of the Greek Marathon project that I learned about non profit fundraising. Up until then we had only been lucky.
Although we had lots of new runners signing up for the team, we also wanted to re-ask the donors who had pledged for the big CEOs from the prior year's team. The problem was that they didn't remember us. Sure, they remembered that their friend, the CEO, had run in the Greek Marathon last year. They remembered that they had sent in a pledge for him. But, in truth, they hadn't paid much attention to that great home health organization he was running to support. Most likely, they didn't even remember our name.
Like many nonprofit organizations, we had a big job before us that year. We had to educate those prior donors about our real work and convert them from being one-time special event donors to lifelong donors. We designed a strategy for reaching and educating all those prior donors. We got a good number of them back on board as donors. But many we lost.
It was that year, the third year, that we began requiring all runners to invite the people pledging for them to an introductory event about our home health program. The runners could have these events in their homes or at our office. But they had to have them. We had to be sure these donors knew they were giving to our organization, not to their friend the runner.
It worked. And, though we kept doing the Greek Marathon and similar "thon" events for many years, they became a feeder for the larger annual campaign and major gifts program. Many of those same donors kept giving for years.
When I left home health care, I went to work as the first director of development for the School of Social Work at the University of Washington. I helped to set up the first grants and individual programs there.
From there, I went to work in the private sector for thirteen years. I became a licensed NASD securities broker/dealer and ran a national firm that raised money for real estate investments. I worked with an outstanding group of people to raise money from Wall Street to Main Street.
While working in the private sector, I became more involved in civic organizations like the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce and Seattle Rotary. This was in the 1980s, when the economy was strong and affordable housing for working families was in short supply.
Under the auspices of the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, I helped to found two affordable housing organizations, both of which were funded 100% by private contributions. I am proud to say that all three of the nonprofit organizations I was involved in founding are still alive and thriving today, in one case more than thirty years later!
By 1991, the economy had shifted. I left the real estate securities business and began taking on private consulting projects.
In the fall of 1992, I got a call from a friend in the business community, asking if I would be available to raise money for an inner-city African American private school. The school had 550 mostly low-income students.
The school had never raised funds from the community. Each student's family or extended family worked hard to pay the $190/month tuition. For nearly fifteen years, the school had been making ends meet on tuition alone. But it was taking its toll on the teachers. These outstanding, certified teachers, who could have been earning union pay scale in the public school system, were being paid $1,600/month on contract. That meant, after they paid their own taxes, they took home about $1,200. No insurance. No pension.
Many of the teachers were certified foster care providers. When serious problems arose at home, students could be moved to the home of a caring, familiar teacher rather than being transferred to another "family" and school. The school was a way of life for most of the teachers; they did not want to leave. Yet they needed more pay.
Just before school started in September, the principal had called a friend in the business community to ask for help. They put together a prestigious non profit fundraising board that encouraged the principal to give raises to the teachers up to $2,000 per month, plus benefits. That one change increased the school's annual budget by $500,000.
In September, the students and teachers came back to school. Everyone was happy. But no money had been raised yet. In November of that year, a few days before Thanksgiving, I went to visit.
I toured the school and even rode the school bus that took the kids home. The most telling thing was that three of the students wouldn't get off the bus. They rode the entire three-hour bus route with us and returned to the school after 6 p.m. They each went home that night with a teacher. They knew what was waiting for them if they had gone to their own homes. So did the bus driver. This made an indelible impression on me.
At 6 p.m. I met with the principal, and agreed to help them raise money to pay for the teacher's raises. We needed to raise $500,000 by June, at the rate of $50,000 a month. And we were already three months behind.
It seemed like a worthwhile challenge!
I worked at the school for the next two years and seven months. Over that time, we raised $7.3 million, including all pledges. When I left, we had pledges for unrestricted operating funds for $850,000 for each of the next five years, or over $4 million. In addition, we had conducted the first phase of a capital campaign, which raised over $3 million, including pledges.
After I left, I joined the fundraising board. I took some time off. I needed to reflect and digest what had happened.
My phone kept ringing. Many other organizations called to ask if I would come and work for them next. Could I please do that same thing for them?
In the spring of 1996, I began returning the calls and inviting people to participate in a workshop I was creating. Something a bit different. We would meet in a group once a month. In between the monthly sessions, I would coach them individually on how to implement this program for themselves. I called it Raising More Money: Building a Self-Sustaining Individual Giving Program.
In today's jargon, rather than going fishing for them, I was attempting to teach them to fish. It was a bold experiment. I had never taught anything. And, like most fundraisers, I hadn't had much formal training in fundraising.
What I had learned was how the non profit fundraising terrain out there had changed. It was time to be asking much more boldly. People were ready to hear the straight story. They wanted to know the facts. They understood operating needs. They were fine about making unrestricted gifts.
Once we had educated and inspired them about the program, they were very willing to make multiple-year commitments for operating money. And to make capital gifts at the same time. Some even made large endowment gifts as their first-time gift.
The landscape has changed. There's so much money out there. As well as we had done at the school, we had left so much more "on the table." I could see how the principles we used could be tailored to any nonprofit.
The first Benevon (formerly "RMM") workshop started in April 1996 with twenty-five participants. I charged $5,000 per participant. I gave no guarantees. I warned the first group that they were "guinea pigs". They didn't seem to care.
Since that first non profit training workshop, people have had extraordinary results. We track the results as closely as possible. For some of the organizations, the breakthrough happens right away. For others, the workshop just ignites the spark that smolders and eventually grows into a full-fledged individual giving program.
I realize this takes time. People don't go to work in nonprofit organizations because they love fundraising. It's the mission that drives them. So, when the person at the top realizes they are actually going to have to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty, it doesn't necessarily seem like good news.
Yet they love their organizations too much to leave them struggling along, year by year, hand-to-mouth. They only fantasize that there is life beyond the treadmill. They are smart enough to know they can't or won't do it on their own. They need someone to guide them through the process. Someone who's been there before. Someone who can ensure that they will leave their legacy for the organization.
It has become clear that this format works for all types of nonprofit organizations. Large and small; local, regional, national and international. Human services, health care, arts, environmental, educational, housing, policy organizations, professional associations, you name it.
The principles of our workshops today are the same as they were in 1996: training and coaching highly motivated people over a span of several months and years to customize and implement a simple step-by-step system for building non profit sustainability from mission-based donors.
My goal is to shift the culture of nonprofit fundraising from the old scarcity-based treadmill of direct mail, grantwriting, and special events to the abundance-based world of mission-based individual donors who want to sustain the long-term operations of the organization.
I truly believe that my story is not special. Anyone with a deep passion for the long-term financial sustainability of their nonprofit organization who works with Benevon to customize our now-proven step-by-step process can attain financial sustainability for their favorite nonprofit.
I invite you to contact us to see how this can work for you.
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