Get Out There and Sell: How One Local Meals on Wheels Keeps Rolling

In 1954, Meals on Wheels began delivering food to the homebound in Philadelphia. Today, the organization feeds close to 2.5 million shut-ins annually across the United States. Its primary focus is serving senior citizens, an effort that is growing rapidly as baby boomers age. By 2050, the number of senior citizens in the U.S. is projected to double to 112 million people.

Meals on Wheels benefits from a decentralized structure. There are 5,000 Meals on Wheels programs around the U.S., which are largely run by some 2 million volunteers. These programs engage in extensive fundraising, and as we've reported, local leaders of top name-brand nonprofits face unique opportunities and challenges when it comes to raising money. 

Related: Raising Money for a Basic Need With a Powerful Brand Behind You

Recently, we chatted with the head of Meals on Wheels West (MOWW), which serves clients in the coastal communities of Los Angeles. Not only is it expanding its geographic area to serve more seniors, it is also expanding the demographics of its homebound clients. “We serve people of all ages,” Executive Director Chris Baca told Inside Philanthropy. “I think there is a misconception that we only serve seniors. So if you had a motorcycle accident and got laid up for a couple of months, we would provide food.”

Since the beginning of 2015, MOWW has increased its food deliveries by 40 percent. Without growing funding, these efforts would fall flat. For Baca the key to fundraising success is “really about the mission, making sure that people understand what you’re doing, making sure to share your success stories and ensuring that people understand the need out there. Really interact with your community. Don’t get trapped behind your desk.”

We've heard other local fundraisers say nearly these exact same things. You want to raise the big money? Get out there and sell. 

It’s an admonition that Baca takes to heart. He sandwiched speaking to Inside Philanthropy between talks to the Venice Neighborhood Council, the Rotary Club of Venice/Marina del Rey, and the City of Santa Monica Commission on Seniors. “Spending face time with people is vitally important, raising awareness of whom we serve,” Baca said.

Meals on Wheels West has been battling food insecurity for more than 40 years, and has solid support from donors including the Scan, Walmart, Ralph M. Parsons, Weingart, Johnnie Carson, and the George Hoag Family foundations. The Santa Monica Rotary Club also supports MOWW. But the majority of donations, 53 percent, come from individuals, solicited through the annual gala, direct mail, the newsletter and website.

Besides Baca, there are only three other full time staff members, Kevin McNulty, chief administrative officer; Ellen Rabin, director of community relations and development;  and Angel Howe, client coordinator. Volunteers are a key part of MOWW’s success, as they are for every local Meals on Wheels. “We have 400 volunteers on over a hundred routes who donate their time and vehicles to deliver food. We estimate this contribution at $280,000 a year,” Baca said. “People who deliver for us really see what’s going on; it affects them.” Often, volunteers also donate cash. Nearly three-quarters of every dollar contributed pays for the meals. 

Meals on Wheels encourages local politicians to help with deliveries. Santa Monica Mayor Richard Bloom and late Los Angeles City Councilor Bill Rosendahl have volunteered. They’ve experienced first-hand that MOW delivers more than food. Volunteers offer social support and are trained in doing wellness assessments. “Not too long ago, one of our volunteers noticed that someone was behaving a little oddly, slurring her speech a tiny bit and our volunteer triggered a medical alert. Paramedics came and it was the beginning of a stroke, so we very likely saved that woman’s life,” Baca said. “We’ll also do referrals to other agencies. If someone is really depressed, we will get another local agency to do mental health visits with them.” Due to the political support the charity has stoked, MOWW gets 13 percent of its backing from local governments.

Another source of funding comes from the meals themselves. Clients pay on a sliding scale, from $8 a day for a delivery of a hot dinner and a light supper down to zero, based on ability to pay. “About 17 percent of our revenue comes from meal fees,” Baca said. It’s the same purchase model used by nonprofits like DKT International, as we've reported.

Related: Inside a Global NGO's Quest for Financial Sustainability

MOWW stretches its resources and impact in other ways, too.

“One of the things that really works for us is collaborating,” Baca said. “We are working with Providence Saint John’s Health Center to provide meals to low-income users of their emergency room. Our Heal Healthy at Home initiative targets newly discharged hospital patients and people returning home from rehabilitation facilities." MOWW is also partnering with UCLA Medical Center Santa Monica and Kaiser Permanente. Helping patients eat nutritiously after discharge makes medical sense. “Studies show that if you feed patients, their healthcare costs go down, so it’s a win-win for healthcare providers and hospitals,” Baca said. Recognizing this fact, Kaiser gave MOWW money from its community benefits program.

Other collaborations have involved work with veterans organizations. Additionally, MOWW has partnered with Southern California Edison to provide emergency solar-powered, crank flashlight/radios to its new homebound patients for dependable light and information in the event of earthquake.

Pets can be a major contributor to a patient’s wellbeing. “We discovered that several of our low-income clients had been giving their food to their dogs because they didn’t have money for pet food,” Baca said. “So we have been providing pet food to our clients for several years. Our Keeping People and Pets Together program is sponsored by Centinela Feed and Pet Supplies and Banfield Charitable Trust. In 2015, we started providing emergency vet treatment to pets of our low-income clients.”

Google’s Southern California headquarters is in Venice, a food delivery area recently taken over by Meals on Wheels West. “We think that there are a lot of formerly homeless people and veterans that we can serve in Venice,” Baca said. Google not only gives money, it sponsors a team of 14 people who volunteer on a rotating basis. Google’s most noteworthy effort is its contribution to the MOWW's annual gala, the Halloween Monster Bash costume party and food tasting, also supported by Loews Hotel.

Baca also founded the County of Los Angeles Meals on Wheels Association, which aims to consolidate the nonprofit's various operations and up its game, along with its clout, in the vast L.A. region.