Supporting seniors: PrimeLife Enrichment seeking long-term solution to sustained drop in grant funds


In the past few years, PrimeLife Enrichment, a Carmel-based senior center serving Hamilton County residents, has seen its membership grow at a “faster rate than ever before,” according to Executive Director Gary Wagner.

At the same time, however, several organizations that have previously provided consistent grant funds to PrimeLife have significantly scaled back contributions or eliminated them altogether, leading the nonprofit to cut staffing, hours, programs and more.

According to PrimeLife, grant funds from Hamilton County, United Way, CICOA and Clay Township combined to account for $470,000 to $524,000 – covering more than half of PrimeLife’s operating expenses – between 2015 and 2020. In 2021, PrimeLife saw a drop in grant funds from each of those organizations, and the combined grant totals have continued to slide. In 2023, PrimeLife received a total of $238,000 from the groups.

The reasons for the cuts vary, but they’ve been drastic and sustained enough for Wagner to begin looking for a long-term solution elsewhere.

“The traditional grant-funding model may work for some organizations, but I don’t think it’s working for us,” he said. “Raising money for seniors is one of the most difficult things to do. But when you consider seniors are the fastest-growing demographic in Hamilton County, sooner or later someone has to help support all the activities that seniors need to lead active, healthy lives.”

‘We just don’t have the funds’

Founded in 1977, PrimeLife Enrichment, 1078 3rd Ave. SW, offers services, programs, transportation and more to Hamilton County residents aged 50 and older.

Between 2016 and 2020, Hamilton County awarded PrimeLife $240,000 annually as part of its support for local nonprofits. In 2021 that total dropped to $225,000 before falling to $200,000 in 2022 and $100,000 in 2023.

Hamilton County Councilor Sue Maki, who took office in 2021, said the county’s previous funding level for PrimeLife was not in line with what the county provided to other nonprofits. So, the county began scaling back the grant.

“They’re a great organization, but we just don’t have the funds, and we have to answer to the other organizations (in the county) that do a lot of the same type of work,” Maki said.

County officials are in the process of reviewing grant requests and allocations for 2024, which will be included as part of the 2024 budget.

United Way of Central Indiana gave more than $125,000 to PrimeLife as recently as 2017, but the past two years it has provided $50,000 annually. UWCI announced in late May that it would provide $75,000 to PrimeLife through its Basic Needs Fund in its 2023-24 awards cycle.

Peter Hanscom, UWCI’s chief brand officer, said the nonprofit in 2019 shifted how it awards grants to a competitive model, now requiring each potential grant recipient to submit an application up to three times per year. It’s also seen an increase in grant applications.

“PrimeLife is doing amazing work,” Hanscom said. “We wish we could fund 100 percent of every request that we get from every partner that we have, but, unfortunately, in the landscape of philanthropy and where we are right now that’s not possible. There is immense need across the seven counties in our region that we serve.”

Clay Township stopped providing grants to PrimeLife in 2021. It had previously provided $28,000 or more from 2015 until 2019 and cut its grant to $15,000 in 2020.

Clay Township Trustee Paul Hensel did not respond to a request for comment as of press time, but at a township board meeting earlier this year board member Matt Snyder said the township’s budget, which is facing a steep decline in local income tax dollars distributed through the state when the Central Park bond is paid off, has led to a reduction in its ability to support nonprofits.

‘Not looking for a Band-Aid’

With grants drying up or disappearing simultaneously from several sources, Wagner and his team are working to fill the funding gaps in other ways.

“We’re not looking for a Band-Aid,” he said. “What can we do to sustain operations and accommodate the needs of this fast-growing senior population for the next 20 to 30 years or more?”

PrimeLife cut the payroll from more than $520,000 in 2018 to $294,000 this year and has worked to lower its operating expenses, too. It’s looking to form new partnerships to help build back at least some of those losses.

Traditionally, the City of Carmel has not offered direct financial support to PrimeLife, but with 73 percent of the senior center’s membership residing in Carmel, Wagner approached city officials about creating a sustained financial partnership. In June, the city helped address the immediate need by providing a $40,000 special donation.

Carmel Mayor Jim Brainard said earlier this year the city hasn’t generally considered financially assisting PrimeLife because the nonprofit received county funding and is designed to serve residents countywide. Wagner said he recently met with Brainard, however, and that the mayor seemed open to reconsidering the possibility. Brainard did not respond to a request for comment on the matter as of press time, other than to state the next city budget is “not yet prepared.”

The 2024 budget will be Brainard’s last, as he did not seek reelection and will leave office at the end of the year (the Carmel City Council will vote on the 2024 budget this fall). A future partnership with PrimeLife likely remains on the table, however, as both the Republican and Democratic mayoral candidates said during an April candidate forum they are in favor of the city financially supporting PrimeLife.

Wagner said he is optimistic about a partnership with the city.

“The taxpayers have to understand why it’s important to them as well,” he said. “If we’re not here to do the job that we’re doing, sooner or later the taxpayers will pay for the additional costs of medical care and housing and other transportation.”

PrimeLife has also begun conducting an annual fundraising campaign, raising approximately $23,000 in its first year and $55,000 the second. Wagner hopes to keep building on those totals in subsequent years.

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