A Conversation with Ellie Hollander
How Ellie Hollander is moving mountains at Meals on Wheels America
Interviewed by Eric Letsinger, Founder and CEO of Quantified Ventures
Ellie Hollander is the President and CEO of Meals on Wheels America, an association that supports a network of about 5,000 local, community-based senior nutrition programs around the country. Ellie runs into the interview room…literally. She moves, and talks, quickly – always. She never stops. A highly accomplished softball shortstop, one can easily imagine her in that position…likely lots of colorful and encouraging chatter for her pitcher, likely some smack talk to the opposing batter, her feet likely never stopped moving. That’s Ellie. Everyday, she is a force of perpetual forward progress and momentum. “Let’s do this,” she says…so, here we go…
E: Your path has brought you through multiple industries, sectors and roles. How did you get here?
I have never been one of those people who knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. So, I’ve never been chained to a structure - that’s been helpful. I’ve learned a lot from each adventure and then gone from there. More specifically, I’ve always been drawn or pulled towards positions that are external-facing, such as giving speeches, building partnerships, solidifying relationships, cross-selling, and cross-marketing. I’ve also never felt constrained by the words on my job description. I always tried to work above and beyond, with the mindset that there’s always more I could learn, contribute, or take on. Many of my roles along the way were created for me because I saw the need, articulated it, and stepped right in.
There’s always more I could learn, contribute, or take on.
E: Meals on Wheels has a long history. How does your chapter fit into this broader history?
I want to be clear that the Meals on Wheels brand was built at the grassroots level in church basements and local communities across the country long before this association—Meals on Wheels America—was ever envisioned. Leapfrogging to today, we are attempting to harness the power of a big wave - a national movement to address the sweeping demographic shift before us - to assure that everyone has the chance to live nourished lives as they age. My role is to support and enable each individual Meals on Wheels program to be the best it can be and at the same time, to leverage the power of the entire network of programs to meet the growing needs of our nation’s vulnerable seniors. Some challenges may be difficult for individual programs to take on, but as a collective, we can move mountains. As a membership organization of autonomous local Meals on Wheels programs, this can sometimes be a hard line to find and even harder to navigate, which is what makes it challenging. On one hand, we have to get in front of and exert leadership in addressing new challenges and seeking new opportunities for our members before they do, which is a major part of our value. But, we can’t be so far ahead that we can’t bring people along. I do a lot of pushing from behind...it’s not always about being out front. I have incredible respect for the leaders we are representing and have worked to gain their trust, which is critical in this business. If they trust you, they will give you the benefit of the doubt so that when we make mistakes, and occasionally fail when pushing our innovation agenda, we can own those mistakes and collectively push onward.
E: You are advancing a series of first-of-a-kind “aging at home” Pay for Success projects around the country. What drives you towards an innovation agenda?
We must innovate and modernize what already exists without throwing away
what makes the Meals on Wheels model of good nutrition, socialization and health and safety-checks so unique. I learned about performance-based contracting from my time in the energy industry. When I moved into the aging sector, I kept asking myself, “Why can’t that work here?” I even wrote to some of the larger foundations to ask for their guidance and received less than encouraging support for pursuing this agenda, as the Pay for Success model was still so new and relatively unproven. Then I met you and Quantified Ventures, who I saw right away as like- minded risk-takers, and we were off to the races! You were the right organization at the right time to ignite this effort with us. In my experience as a leader, you must be willing to put your toe in the water where you see possibilities - to “initiate” rather than to “wait,” and then trust yourself and others to make good decisions along the way and self- correct, as needed.
E: I’ve watched you lead this organization and movement with purpose, kindness and determination. Where does that come from?
It comes from a dual sense of service and urgency. I see opportunities and I recognize that windows don’t stay open for long. The phrase “culture eats strategy for lunch every day” is totally true. There are hidden barriers to teamwork that are not obvious, but critical to identify and resolve. Everyone talks about empowering the organization, but it really means that you have to connect your actions with your vision. We had a strategy and then we operationalized it. For example, our office space wasn’t conducive to our culture or vision, so we moved into a space that enabled our quest. When I arrived and read the old employee handbook, it didn’t reflect the type of organization I wanted to lead. Everything has to be aligned or it will limit your success. I’ve also learned, painfully, that you can’t build an organization around 3-point shooters...you simply won’t win. You need high-performing team players at all levels from top to bottom.
E: How do you stay motivated in these current times? You have a big mission with lots of headwinds.
These are the times when we absolutely need to persevere and find our tailwinds to propel us forward. It’s easy to get discouraged when you see the potential but things just aren’t going your way. Interestingly, we’ve been preparing for these harder moments. I don’t go out and look to be a pioneer. I am able to wear many hats and look at things from different angles. When I came here, I saw immediately that Meals on Wheels needed to be more directly connected to the healthcare industry. If our member base is going to do business with them effectively, then we need to first understand their language, what drives them, and how they value our services. I knew we needed to measure our impact on healthcare savings in a rigorous manner and to develop the formal evidence-base. I had just done this at my last post, and it worked well, so I took the same approach here to develop a healthcare business case - a reason for health plans to want to do business with us. I reached out to Dr. Kali Thomas at Brown University and partnered with her to structure the gold standard of evaluation, the Randomized Controlled Trial, which largely validated our hypothesis that we made a real impact on health outcomes. Concurrently, we needed to transform our brand to contemporize what Meals on Wheels stood for—that we are not just a meal delivery service, but we are also about enabling independence through daily nutrition, companionship and health and safety checks. And we needed to help reframe what aging in America looks like, so we initiated a multi-year Ad Council Campaign to inspire more individuals to reap the immediate gratification of volunteering with Meals on Wheels. These efforts to operationalize our strategy have boosted our tailwinds to help us cut through the headwinds of a rapidly exploding aging demographic and a serious shortage of resources with which to support them.
You have to connect your actions with your vision.
E: What do you say to those younger, future leaders out there who might be considering safer career paths rather than jumping into public service?
My suggestion is simple - focus on getting the little things right for now. The rest will unfold and opportunities will present themselves at the right time. I’d love to see this younger generation get back to basics and recognize the need to stand out from the crowd. Handwritten thank you notes can cut through the ten thousand emails we each receive every day. Timely follow-ups and being responsive matters. Anticipate needs, be proactive, and go beyond what’s on the paper or being asked of you. Never forget the value of being memorable and differentiating yourself. It has served me well over time. We have had a long-standing and enormously valuable partnership with Subaru through its annual Share the Love Event, so I started cold-calling its retailers to simply thank them for allowing us to participate. They were blown away because no one had ever done that. I still write hand-written notes to Members of Congress because it makes a difference when we add our personal touches to our work. If we don’t, then everything becomes so transactional.
E: What do you think have been some of the barriers to adoption within your industry?
Rather than list them, let me share this. Regardless of the industry or the transformation one seeks, there are systemic forces that, if not recognized and addressed, will thwart innovation. Quite simply, never mistake resistance to change for failure. Understanding that difference is paramount because change is a journey, not an event. Don’t give up too soon and don’t forget that barrier removal is part of the job.
E: You received the ‘Moneyball for Nonprofit All Star Award’ this year from Results for America. That’s a big deal...congrats! What’s next for Ellie Hollander at Meals on Wheels America?
I’m loving the work that we have in front of us at Meals on Wheels America, and we’re just scratching the surface. I don’t want to do one Pay for Success Project, I want us to get 100 deals done, and done as soon as possible! We have a huge challenge and millions of seniors are relying on us. I want to continue to be part of the solution and I intend to keep running after it.