Completing successful lives

By Rob Neufeld

HENDERSONVILLE, N.C. – To the new head of the Community Foundation of Henderson County, philanthropy is the fulfillment of people’s lives.

“If I were to boil our objectives down to one,” says McCray V. Benson, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Henderson County, “it would be building philanthropists.”

Hired in July 2005 after 10 years as a psychotherapist, five years with United Way, and eight years with Foundation for the Carolinas in Charlotte, Benson seeks to assist philanthropists in finding their wished-for connections to community and their own destinies.

“A big part of the challenge today,” he says, “is to demonstrate how individuals can get involved through philanthropy and then continue to participate in a group process.”

Though the rules that govern nonprofits require that donors to the foundation give up direct control over their money, Benson’s organization encourages them to be active advisors for the charitable funds they help create.

One way donors participate is by serving on committees, each facilitated by a staff person and dedicated to a particular area of interest.

About 100 volunteers supplement Benson’s staff of six, keeping costs down.

And with $64 million in assets, the foundation requires about $500,000 to turn dollars into deeds, an expense-to-asset ratio of 0.88 percent.

The foundation’s areas of interest are broad and include arts and culture, civic affairs, conservation, education and health and human services.

Most of its funds are dedicated to purposes that fall into these categories, but about 15 percent is for discretionary use, allowing the foundation to respond to changing needs.

Recently, this latitude enabled the foundation to act upon its perception that family and child-care programs in the county needed a reliable way to coordinate the separate agencies on which success depended.

The foundation established a task force, which then formed a nonprofit, the Children and Family Resource Center of Henderson County.

“Taking on a task force like that is not something we do every year,” Benson says, adding that the resource center “took a number of years to bring to fruition.”

The foundation has now developed a task force to serve the Henderson County region with the Hispanics in Philanthropy project, a national initiative that the W.K. Kellogg and Z. Smith Reynolds foundations have helped support.

Benson comes to a young and particularly active organization. 

Henderson County’s community foundation was established in 1983, 69  years after the first was created in Cleveland, Ohio, and while its assets now place it in the mid-range of North Carolina community foundations, its per-capita assets place it much higher.

McCray V. Benson

Job: President and CEO, Community Foundation of Henderson County, N.C.

Education: B.S., psychology, Trevecca Nazarene University; master’s, social work, Vanderbilt University, then UNC-Chapel Hill

Career: Psychotherapist; director, United Way, Cabarrus County; director, United Way of Central Carolinas; senior vice-president of community philanthropy, Foundation for the Carolinas

Born: 1956, Charlotte, N.C.

Family: Wife, Judy Atchley-Benson, social worker; grown stepson and stepdaughter

Hobbies: photography and travel

Currently reading: “The Eighth Habit: From Effectiveness to Greatness,” by Stephen Covey

Desk item: Small lined pad on which he writes quick notes, logs minutes expended on tasks, and lists five things on which to stay focused

Wall item: Framed picture of Burano, Italy, an untouristed place that reminds Benson to breathe deeply

Hero: Mentor, Gordon Berg, first president of the Foundation for the Carolinas.  His favorite phrase was, ‘What have you done good for humanity today?’

A majority of the residents of Henderson County moved there after successful careers and vocations, Benson says, pointing to one British engineer who settled in the area after World War II.Thinking about his legacy, the engineer reflected on his childhood, and on how the Catholic school that had enabled him to succeed had provided uniforms, books, and other necessities at no cost.

Consequently, the engineer now plans to create a scholarship to provide such items to needy children at a local Catholic parochial school.

“His telling the story of his life was an important part of the giving process,” Benson concludes.

Of the community foundation’s nearly 400 active funds, 70 are for scholarships.

During the 2004-05 fiscal year, the foundation distributed $2.2 million in both grants and scholarships.

Recently, the foundation reformulated its strategic plan to reflect several goals.

They include continued growth; maintaining collaborative relationships with professionals in the area; working with community partners to serve as a leader and catalyst in addressing community issues; expanding awareness of the foundation; and strengthening the foundation’s staff and leadership.

“People tell me, ‘I wish there were more for me to do’” Benson says. “The passion that goes along with philanthropy is something different from and beyond the dollars.”

One recently-engaged philanthropist is developing a charitable fund called “Porquoi pas”—“Why not?”

The fund is in honor of the donor’s husband, who recently died, and she wants to perpetuate the reason for being of their lives, taking chances on dreams.

“Connections with potential givers are face to face, it’s personal,” Benson says.  “It goes along with good listening and having the tools available for people to use to try the creative things in which they want to be involved.”

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