When Mark Whitley became CEO at St. Jude’s Ranch for Children 18 months ago, he brought with him the full spectrum of financial wizardry from his CFO portfolio but had to leave one “wizard” behind. While many charities are folding, consolidating, cutting, and merging, his residential facility for kids is thriving.
Without the star power of high-profile, high-impact donors, charities are vulnerable to extinction. With national and state cutbacks, the weight of fundraising falls on the CEO. When Whitley guided Opportunity Village through a tremendous growth period -- where he benefitted from king-size donor/magicians like Penn Jillette -- he had a formidable base. St. Jude’s budget, on the other hand, is 38 percent funded from federal Medicaid through the state, the rest from the kindness of those who aren’t strangers to the community.
In Whitley’s five years as Opportunity Village CFO, he doubled the number served and opened two new campuses. So while Jillette may have “vanished” from Whitley’s Rolodex, Whitley continues to expand his stellar cache of donors.
The Ranch, not to be confused with the hospital, began in 1966 when Forrest Duke, former Review Journal writer, convinced Jack Benny, Shecky Greene, Bob Hope and Frank Sinatra to perform at a charity event at the Riviera Hotel. That event raised $30,000 to begin the Ranch’s purpose, to transform the lives of abused and at-risk children, young adults, and families by empowering them make new choices. Today, the 40-acre campus, which is named after St. Jude, the Patron Saint of Lost Causes, is interwoven into the Boulder City community.
Whitley’s latest event to keep the Ranch moving forward is “Wine, Women and Shoes,” which will be held Sunday afternoon April 30, from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at Celebrity Cars of Las Vegas. Donors will experience designer shopping, wine tasting, auctions, a fashion show featuring Michael Costello and plenty of food. Tickets start at $95 and are available online at winewomenandshoes.com.
“We anticipate it will have a nice impact and, if it goes as well as we hope, we want to make it an annual event,” Whitley says.
DAVID: Last fall, a 50th anniversary black tie gala was held for the first time. Was it a success?
M.W.: The event was really, really successful. It broadened the scope of exposure and our donor base while making a lot of new friends. We hope it is the first of many. St. Jude’s had not had a celebration like that in over 20 years. It was a sellout and we netted more than $125,000. For a first-year, it was a tremendous success. The southern Nevada population sees us as a valuable service.
DAVID: Since St. Jude’s separated from its affiliation with two Texas schools, how has the Boulder City campus been thriving?
M.W.: For about 20 years we had been aligned with two campuses in Texas, outside San Antonio, with the same name. We strategically separated in 2016. Since then, on the private individual donor fronts, [our] St. Jude’s has seen a lot of progress. Now we have an entirely local board that is focused on our success.
DAVID: Jon Taffer, who recently joined the board of directors. brings fame from the Spike TV show “Bar Rescue” and has become a major supporter. How did it happen?
M.W.: One of our community supporters, chef Vic Vegas, a celebrity chef with his own TV show, is friends with Jon Taffer and he suggested [Jon] take a look at St. Jude’s. Jon supported our Christmas gift program and it took off from there. We’re building the number of major supporters, including major celebrities, to make sure St. Jude’s has sustainability moving forward. We will have an announcement of more supporters that we will be making very soon.”
DAVID: Will the burden of funding nonprofits become totally donor driven?
M.W.: I agree with that perspective. As I’ve had some experience this is not anything new. Just more uncertainty. Not-for-profits needing and requiring is not new.
DAVID: Facilities like the ranch may face total self-sufficiency. How worried are you about the current political climate not shining on your at-risk therapeutic programs?
M.W: I’m not worried in the short term. In the longer term, I’m a little more apprehensive on what to expect over the next couple years. We aren’t sure what to expect. We are evaluating that right now.
DAVID: When you were CFO with Walker and Associates, Inc., a telecommunications products distributor, the organization’s growth rose in excess of $350 million. The total revenue at the Ranch is $5 million yearly. What’s the trick to stretching a small budget?
M.W.: It’s fair to say that we’ve really focused on streamlining the facility and making it more efficient.