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Wheeler Mission backers to kick off fund drive: Push to address building needs, ease financial strain

May 12, 2008

In February, Indianapolis' Wheeler Mission Ministries cut non-residential programming to stave off a budget shortfall as donations flat-lined and more homeless people came through its doors.

Now the mission is facing more tough times, projecting as much as a $500,000 shortfall for the fiscal year that begins June 1.

To help close the gap, supporters are kicking off Operation Restoration, a fund drive they hope will raise $11 million to help the mission expand, pay building debts, and build a rainy day fund.

But experts said the multimillion-dollar effort will face a major challenge: The current economic environment is increasing the organization's workload even as it makes fund raising more difficult.

"Human-service organizations ... get a double whammy," said Patrick M. Rooney, director of research at Indiana University's Center on Philanthropy. "The giving goes down and there is a dramatic increase in demand for total services."

Wheeler President Rick Alvis knows it won't be easy.

"If we hit three or four million, I'll dance a jig," he said.

He said the group wants to establish a rainy day fund because he's not a fan of "fire appeals" like one earlier this year that raised questions about Wheeler's future.

"We're trying to create some real stability," Alvis said.

Wheeler cut two ministry programs in February, hoping to shore up a predicted $342,000 shortfall in its $6 million operating budget. But news of the cutbacks was misreported, and some in the community thought Wheeler might close.

Rather than sound the mission's death knell, individual donors dug deeper.

"We had the strongest February in Wheeler history," said Chief Operating Officer Stephen Kerr. That bump allowed the mission to close out its fiscal year with no deficit.

But the picture isn't as rosy for the 2008-2009 budget. Alvis said he hopes to hold program costs to $5.6 million, but that could increase given demand. The Delaware Street shelter housed an average of 300 people per night in 2007. So far this year, the average has hovered between 400 and 500.

Donations, meanwhile, are mostly flat-not surprising considering 85 percent of the shelter's revenue comes from individuals who, on average, give $54.

"People just don't have discretionary dollars to give," Kerr said. "They're going into the gas tank or towards bills instead."

Wheeler officials are trying a number of things to improve the financial picture.

First is Operation Restoration, which kicks off this week. Local television personalities and community leaders will sleep in the Indianapolis Motor Speedway infield May 14-18 to draw attention to homelessness.

The group also is in talks with local sports teams about hosting events that would raise Wheeler's profile, said Cindy Palmer, a volunteer and co-organizer of Operation Heartland.

"Homelessness is such a big issue and it's our community's responsibility," Palmer said. "The goal is to bring awareness of this issue to a level we've never had."

If the fund-raising effort reaches its goal, $4 million will go to expand Wheeler's Rural Street women's facility. The Care Center had to turn away about 3,000 women seeking shelter last year. Another $1 million would pay off Wheeler's building debt.

The remaining $6 million would be a buffer to allow Wheeler to escape future financial crises. Such reserves are common at arts and education organizations that attract big donors, but harder to accomplish for groups that serve the poor.

"It's unusual for a mission-based, faith-based entity to have an endowment of any size," said local not-for-profit consultant Bryan Orander. "The thought is, 'If people are starving and we have the ability to feed them, how can we justify putting our revenue in the bank?'"

So Wheeler also is working to beef up its so-called "earned" income. In Bloomington, shelter residents are making pallets that Wheeler sells and, in September, the mission opened a thrift store at 2730 S. Madison Ave. Together, those programs gross about $50,000 a month.

In 2007, more than 5,000 runners took part in Drumstick Dash, the mission's 4-1/2-mile fund-raising race in Broad Ripple that brought in $65,000. Organizers hope more than 7,000 runners will register this year.
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