Terry Axelrod, the founder and CEO of Benevon, a company focused on pro- viding training and educa- tion in the fundraising sec- tor, has lived in Seattle for more than 40 years. But she vividly remembers and cherishes the early years of her life, growing up in northwest Detroit.
“I lived in the 7 Mile and Livernois area,” she says. “Now (the business district) is called the Avenue of Fashion. In my day, (the neighborhood) was a very different place, with tree-lined streets. Beautiful.”
“My family (has lived in Detroit for) at least three generations, so I’m fourth-generation. One of my grandfathers was a physician in the Fox Theatre building, and my other grandfather owned movie theaters downtown during the Depression. My parents had both grown up in the Belcrest (in Midtown), which at the time was an elegant high-rise apartment building that families lived in. I grew up very much a Detroiter and a product of all of that.”
Axelrod’s dad, Harry Goldberg, worked in advertising, while her mom, Betty Goldberg, was an interior decorator and a graduate of Kingswood School in Bloomfield Hills, which Terry also attended.
“I loved Kingswood,” she says. “And being carpooled in every day from the Jewish enclave way down in the big, bad city, the contrast was marked — and it gave me a different perspective. The rich learning environment, and the beauty, and the diverse — to me — student population really opened up my eyes and gave me an ability to navigate the world in a way I would not have otherwise had.”
But in the summer of 1967, after graduating from high school, the Detroit riots in July impacted the course of her life in a way she never could have anticipated.
“My father raced home from work in the middle of the afternoon,” she says, “having witnessed the fires and looting going on just a few blocks from our house. Within minutes, he packed us all up in the car and drove us up north. I had never seen my father like that, ever. He was terrified for our family. The protective bubble, shell, or whatever, had really burst, and we were part of it. Everyone was part of it.”
“Living through the riots was very life-changing for me,” Axelrod says. “It’s kind of hard to put into words, but it was very, very powerful. To have grown up in a city that I loved, my parents loved, my grandparents loved, and then watching this tragedy happen right at such an exciting time in my life and my future, was devastating.”
Before the riots, Axelrod was a wide-eyed 18-year-old focused on pursuing a business career. By the time she arrived in at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor just a month or so after the destruction in her home city, she’d already decided on a dramatically different path.
“All of us felt so hopeless and so powerless to bring about any change,” she says. “It was so overwhelming and so much bigger than we all were, even though we’d been a part of it, and felt it, and seen it. So when it was time to choose a major, I went into psychology — and, ultimately, into social work — and I became very committed to making a difference and a real contribution in communities.”
Axelrod earned both a B.A. in psychology and a master’s degree in social work in just over four years at U-M — a powerful indication of her commitment, as that process normally takes six years — and also found her calling in the nonprofit sector.
“(I had) a student placement work-study program at Ypsilanti State Hospital,” she says, “and I learned a lot about mental illness and what it means to institutionalize people for their entire lives. (While I was working there), all of these people who’d been in psychiatric hospitals for 40 years were let out of them, and anyone new coming in was only allowed to stay for 48 hours, including people who were quite dangerous. So my job changed from taking care of people who’d been there for their whole lives to developing the first halfway houses in the town of Ypsilanti, which were a kind of refuge for these people who’d been let out of the hospital so quickly.”
Axelrod met her husband, Alan, in Ann Arbor and, once he graduated from U-M law school, they were both ready to launch their careers. “We couldn’t go back to Detroit,” she says. “My husband is from Detroit, too. It was a whole migration; none of my siblings stayed there, either. Everybody left. It felt like it was going to take more than one generation to transform the city that we loved so much. It was a very hard decision, but we felt we had a lot to contribute to a city — and it was either stay in Ann Arbor, or pick another place. It was a big, big thing. So we moved out to Seattle in 1972.”
Axelrod continued building her career with nonprofit organizations in her new hometown, initially with a home health care program that became the beneficiary of her inspired idea for its initial fundraising campaign.
“I decided to go to Greece and run the route of the original Greek marathon,” she says. “We raised $25,000 the first year, all in pledges for every mile I ran. In the second year there were 26 of us, for each mile in a marathon, and we raised $225,000.”
After just two years, it seemed like Axelrod had discovered a foolproof formula for continued success. “By the third year, I realized we’d just been lucky. The people who had pledged money for the second year weren’t going to write a check again the third year, because their friend wasn’t running anymore. They didn’t know anything about the cause; they were only doing it to please their buddy. I realized if I didn’t go back and connect those donors to what we were really trying to do with this home health care program, they would never give to us again.”
That revelation led to Axelrod completely revising her approach to fundraising.
“You have to show people the real work of the organization before you ask them for money,” she says. “Let them guide the process, let them tell you if they’re even interested enough to proceed to the next step. Honor their wishes. Treat them the way you’d want to be treated as a donor, not as some checkbook or Rolodex. It’s pretty simple. It’s all of the basic social work practices that I learned, about how you build relationships with people, and it honors the fact that people really do have things they care about. So it’s a lot more than getting someone to make a one-time gift just to placate a friend on the board.”
Axelrod fine-tuned this approach over the next 20 years, as she migrated from home health care to a family-owned real estate investment company and also got involved in local civic organizations. She launched three full-fledged 501(c)(3)s and then, in the early 1990s, returned to the nonprofit sector as the development director for an African-American school in Seattle’s inner city.
“We successfully raised over $7 million in two and a half years,” she says, “and by the end of the seventh year, we had also completed a $15 million endowment to provide a lasting future for the school.”
That experience turned out to be the final step Axelrod needed to fully develop what became her Benevon Method of sustainable funding. “All the work I did for that school allowed me to see that there was a method,” she says, “and a way to teach it that could allow any nonprofit to find the people who really care about what they’re doing and would stay with them for the long term.”
Since starting with just three employees in the spring of 1996, Benevon has worked with some 5,000 organizations to build long-term sustainable funding. Axelrod’s marathon days are behind her, “but I’m still a bit of a fitness fanatic,” she says.
She’s written seven books, makes regular appearances and speeches around the world, and is also an adjunct lecturer at the U-M School of Social Work, where she teaches a course on sustainable funding.
“I have a very big sense of guilt for having left this place that we loved,” she says. “(I have) very strong memories, a very deep connection; we all still have this thing for Detroit. I’ve tried explaining that to friends of mine out here in Seattle, and they think I’m nuts. You know, it’s one thing to be in love with your college and wear the ‘Go Blue’ stuff, but your city? (Friends wonder), if you love it so much, why did you leave it?”
Now, she’s determined to give back.
“We just moved all the training to Detroit that we were doing in Chicago,” she says, “so we’re trying to bring some business to Detroit. We’ve trained many strong nonprofits and they’re raising a lot of money for good things in the city.
“My husband and I are both absolutely thrilled about what’s happening in Detroit,” she adds. “As many people of our generation have said, we didn’t know (this type of revitalization) would (happen) in our lifetime. I remain very concerned about the neighborhoods; Detroit was made on neighborhoods, and that is my focus when I come back — to see what’s really going on in the neighborhoods and what it’s going to take to expand this tremendous renaissance beyond downtown and Midtown.”
Axelrod recently made one of her frequent visits to Detroit and brought along a very special travel companion: her 87-year-old mother, who lives in Florida. They checked out the Belcrest and other familiar childhood locales, and stayed at the Westin Book Cadillac Hotel.
“As thrilling as it is for me to see, it’s overwhelming for me to be able to have my mother see (the changes),” she says. “She told me it will be her last time to go to Detroit, and she wanted to see everything that’s going on.”