Public broadcasters seek big bucks to feed Big Bird: WFYI capital campaign has ambitious $15.3M goal

Public broadcasters usually aren’t shy about asking for money. Indeed, their telethon-style fund-raising drives likely are as recognizable to audiences as Big Bird and Garrison Keillor.

But when it comes to big money, they haven’t had much practice. Until now.

For more than a year, Indianapolis broadcaster WFYI quietly has been lining up support for its largest-ever capital campaign-a $15.3 million effort to upgrade equipment, expand its Meridian Street building, and more than double the not-for-profit’s endowment.

Station leaders were expected to go public with the campaign Oct. 21 at WFYI’s 35th anniversary gala. About $9.1 million was pledged during the 18-month “quiet” period leading up to the announcement.

“We’ve always known that a capital campaign would be required not just to sustain operations, but to allow us to grow for the future,” said Lloyd Wright, CEO of the WFYI TelePlex since 1989.

The umbrella organization runs WFYITV Channel 20 and WFYI-FM 90.1. Other components include its Indiana Reading and Information Services-where volunteers read newspapers for the visually impaired-Web site and an outreach effort that takes educational programming into the community.

Early supporters say WFYI is worth the investment.

“We consider WFYI an important community asset,” Lilly Endowment spokeswoman Gretchen Wolfram said, explaining a $5 million contribution the Indianapolis-based organization made to the campaign last year.

“It’s part of the energy created in the community,” concurred Brian Payne, president of the Indianapolis Foundation, which made a $100,000 commitment. “It’s one of the things … that makes this a special city.”

WFYI took its first stab at attracting big bucks about 10 years ago, when it raised $5 million to begin the federally mandated switch to digital TV broadcasting. Its needs have only increased since then, though, and now radio is making the technological leap, too.

The promise of the new technology comes with a cost, Wright said-$5.7 million, to be exact. For television, that means upgrading equipment to produce programs worthy of the resolution digital television offers. Also on the technology wish list: more distance-learning capabilities and a local radio news bureau.

Infrastructure issues also are rearing their head. Wright said WFYI leaders seriously considered moving from the cramped Meridian Street offices, but ultimately decided to add on at a cost of $6.1 million.

“I’m thrilled we decided to stay on Broadcast Row,” he said, using the common nickname for the local TV industry’s version of Main Street. “We will essentially double the size of our facility.”

Public access also is important, he said, so the larger building will include a community room that can be used for educational programming, possibly in collaboration with other not-for-profit organizations.

Civic engagement is an important part of WFYI’s plan for the future, Wright said.

Less visible but equally important is a plan to use $3.5 million of campaign proceeds to build WFYI’s endowment-its long-term savings account. Now worth $1.8 million, the endowment doesn’t generate much revenue for day-to-day operations yet. Indeed, Wright said WFYI hasn’t drawn any income from the endowment in recent years.

Public support adds up to 45 percent of WFYI’s $9.2 million annual budget; all told, 86 percent of revenue comes from individuals, corporations, grants and underwriters. About 13 percent comes from government sources, including a federal appropriation distributed through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Organizers hope the capital campaign won’t have much of an impact on WFYI’s annual fund-raising efforts, but Wright admitted annual membership has been flat in recent years.

That’s one of the factors driving WFYI and other public broadcasters to ramp up their major-giving efforts, working to cultivate supporters who can dig a little deeper.

Looking for ways to bolster public broadcasters’ revenue, CPB launched a national major-giving initiative last year, offering formal training for member stations. WFYI was among those that participated.

A study conducted for CPB in 2003 estimated that major gifts could generate as much as $35 million a year.

Such relationships are important to public broadcasters-and vital for a successful capital campaign, said Robert Stein of, a Virginiabased fund-raising consultant working with CPB on the initiative.

“Public television and radio [stations have] gotten into some bad habits,” he told IBJ. “It’s very easy to turn on a microphone and ask for money. … But that does very little to build a philanthropic community.”

WFYI is confident it can make inroads there nonetheless, its leaders’ confidence buoyed by the 30,000-plus supporters who have kept the television station on the air for 35 years.

Two years ago, WFYI launched its “Visionary Circle” to recognize donors who make annual unrestricted contributions of $1,000 or more. Since then, its rolls have increased from 80 to 240. Membership in the “Sound Vision Society”-those who give $250-$999-also has grown, Wright said.

“We have a fiercely supportive group of people behind us,” said capital campaign Co-chairwoman Barbara Branic, president of Regions Bank’s Greater Indianapolis Group. “And some of them have not been asked for more.”

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