SCORE Awards: East Cooper Meals on Wheels

MOUNT PLEASANT, S.C. ( MainStreet) -- East Cooper Meals on Wheels' President and CEO Pat Walker may be running a nonprofit organization, but the challenges as the economy remains sluggish are like any facing for-profit small business and their leaders.

East Cooper Meals on Wheels began as a grassroots effort in 1985 to make sure senior citizens in the community had at least one good meal a day, but in the 26 years of operation the mission has grown to include total nutrition for seniors and other homebound people who cannot get or pay for their own meals, Walker says.
East Cooper Meals on Wheels President and CEO Pat Walker oversees eight paid employees and a volunteer staff of roughly 285.

The organization has eight paid employees and a volunteer staff of roughly 285.

Walker, a retired teacher, began as a volunteer with East Cooper Meals on Wheels, but her passion for its mission grew over time. She became its CEO in 2006.

"I was inspired," Walker says. "I realized the importance of the work and providing seniors with food, but also I was taken by the generosity of other people and their willingness to work together."

As East Cooper Meals on Wheels won the 2011 SCORE award for Outstanding Socially Progressive Small Business, Walker spoke with TheStreet on what it's like to work for the nonprofit organization.

How does a nonprofit organization run like a small business?

Walker: If you really are meeting the goals of a mission then you have to have a business behind the mission, because you still have to have a revenue source, you still have to advertise, you're still providing a service to customers just like a small business would and you're creating relationships and partnerships along the way. That lines right up with business, and that is one reason why we engaged SCORE. We wanted to make sure we were using best business practices so that we could meet those stated goals and stated objectives of our mission. As much as we were growing we couldn't do that simply out of good will.

We have challenges. We have personnel challenges, food procurement challenges, delivery challenges, quality control, budgeting -- all of the same challenges as a for-profit business .

What are some lessons learned from SCORE?

Walker: We've learned a number of things from them. We've homed in on finances so that we can run as efficiently as possible with cost control measures by minimizing our administrative and fundraising costs. Eight-eight percent of money goes directly back into the programs.

I think we have learned more about our service to recipients, which in the business world would be customer service, and how to streamline that service but meet the needs of individual clients or recipients.

What has been the toughest part of the past year, given the continued sluggish economy?

Walker: Our financial support has been impacted by the economy so it means that we have to be creative, we have to put more time and energy into fundraising, into developing partnerships and into the community. That is one thing that accounts for our success. We have done a fantastic job of engaging other businesses in our community.

The other way the economy has impacted us is in demand. People are on fixed incomes. They don't have the financial resources to provide for their own food. Hunger in seniors and in general -- it's just a reality in our country. It's not something that is pretty, but it certainly is real.

So you have tighter financing and increased demand and it just has caused us to work harder. Over 90% of our clients live below the poverty level, so it's not like you can charge for the meals. That's our sense of mission. Those things have just made our jobs a little bit harder.

Do you plan to hire additional employees over the next 12 months?

Walker: Our hiring of employees has to be very strategic. We have added a position this year, and we're adding another position next year. It's exactly like a business -- it all depends on funding. We have to balance that with needs that we have to meet. Obviously, we can continue to expand our volunteer base, but the fact of the matter is you have to have a paid employee to manage the volunteer base. So we do plan to expand.

What does it mean to win this award?

Walker: It just highlights for us the dedication and commitment that we have from our volunteers and other small businesses in our community. It also affirms for us that we are following best practices. We are very focused on that to make sure that we are a very well-run small business and we can overcome those bumps in the road like the economy -- which is more than a bump in the road at this point. It also acknowledges that senior hunger is a challenge that needs to be addressed in the community. It's just huge for us to be recognized.

-- Written by Laurie Kulikowski in New York.

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