Ellie Hollander of Meals on Wheels America: “It’s something that is earned, not bestowed”

It’s about setting a vision, exciting people to want to join with you on the journey, and knocking down obstacles that get in the way. It’s about showing humility, vulnerability and authenticity; not taking yourself too seriously; being accessible, open, honest and inclusive. Leadership is an evolution and can happen at any level in an […]

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It’s about setting a vision, exciting people to want to join with you on the journey, and knocking down obstacles that get in the way. It’s about showing humility, vulnerability and authenticity; not taking yourself too seriously; being accessible, open, honest and inclusive. Leadership is an evolution and can happen at any level in an organization. It’s something that is earned, not bestowed.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ellie Hollander .

Ellie leads a nationwide network of thousands of community-based nutrition programs committed to assuring the health, safety and independence of America’s seniors. Her career spans both the for-profit and non-profit sectors, including as Chief Strategy Officer and EVP of Business Development at Good360, and EVP and Chief People Officer and Interim Associate Executive Director of Membership at AARP. Ellie graduated from Duke with double-majors and later from its Fuqua School of Business’ Advanced Management Program and she is a 2016 Silver Stevie® Award Female Executive of the Year winner and was recently named a “Moneyball for Government Nonprofit All-Star” by Results for America for her commitment to evidence-based work.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

It was rather serendipitous. I was not looking for a change at the time, but a person who had been a personal mentor of mine for decades reached out because she had received the job description for the President and CEO of Meals on Wheels America from the executive recruiter hired for the search.

The position seemed to be written for me, bringing to bear so many of the skills and experiences I had honed through my different roles in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors — including Chief Strategy Officer and EVP of Business Development at Good360, and EVP and Chief People Officer and Interim Associate Executive Director of Membership at AARP. And it aligned with my personal values of improving the quality of life for others — which coincidentally had been embedded in the missions of nearly all the purpose-driven organizations for which I had worked.

At that moment in my life, however, I was grappling with the recent news that my sister had been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer and my dad’s health, who was dependent on me for regular care and companionship, had begun to fail. While the prospects of leading an organization as vital as Meals on Wheels were exciting to me, I wanted to be there for both of my family members and didn’t think I could juggle that with being a parent of a young daughter and starting anew and with such a big job on my shoulders.

Nonetheless, within the first few minutes of my interview, it became clear that this was the place for me — the passion and commitment of the Board Officers, all of whom were leaders of their own individual Meals on Wheels programs, were contagious. They won me over in no time, and it has been a labor of love ever since.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I’m not sure which would top the other, but you can decide. In my very first week on the job at Meals on Wheels America in February of 2013, I had my well-thought out, Board-sanctioned 90-day plan in hand — all the things I intended to accomplish in my first three months. Well, it must have been my third or fourth day in, when Congress passed and President Obama signed into law, legislation that no one ever believed would happen. So, it wasn’t on my radar at all and the Board had never mentioned it! This legislation was affectionately referred to as Sequestration — an indiscriminate 5% across-the-board cut to all “discretionary programs” in the federal budget, which — practically overnight — stripped 50M dollars from Meals on Wheels funding. Press calls began to come in, one after the other. NPR, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, NBC News, and scores of others. I had to literally become a sequester-expert within hours!

Or my very first opportunity to testify in front of a Senate Committee on June 19, 2013, with the likes of Senators Bernie Sanders, Richard Burr, Elizabeth Warren, Chris Murphy, Tammy Baldwin and Al Franken. I had hired a car service as a special treat and left 90 minutes early for a trip that should only take 40 minutes. Well, it just so happened that that morning, there was a terrible accident on North Capitol Street in which several pedestrians were struck by a car that had lost control. The traffic was backed up for miles and I was beyond panicked that I might not make it in time for the hearing. I was literally drafting my resignation letter in the back seat of the town car. I somehow convinced the driver that this was a do or die situation for my career and out of compassion, he muscled his way around the traffic and got me to the Senate Dirksen Office Building with five minutes to spare. I ran through security (generally not a wise thing to do), sweating profusely (it was June in DC, after all), and as I approached the entrance to the hearing room, I took a deep breath and told myself “No one but you know what happened or what a close call this was. Just suck it up and press on.”

As a leader, you certainly need to be able to roll with the punches at times; and you also need to know when to stand up and lean in! That’s when having passion for what you do, what you stand for and why it matters is paramount. It gives you the strength to get through difficult times.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh yes, it happened during the Senate hearing I mentioned above. This was my first experience testifying, and it would have been intimidating even under the best of circumstances. Now that I had settled in at my place at the witness table and stopped hyper-ventilating, I got into my groove with my opening comments, and after everyone on the panel testified, members of the Committee asked questions. I remember Senator Warren asking me a question to which I didn’t know the answer. So, I punted to another witness. As I listened to that answer, I realized that I actually did understand what the Senator had been asking. Not really knowing protocol, when Senator Franken asked me a follow-up question, I answered it and then used it as a transition to follow-up on Senator Warren’s earlier question. Apparently, I used up all of Senator Franken’s time, so he had to ask Senator Sanders, who was the Chair of that Committee at the time, whether he would give him more time since I had absconded with his minutes. Everyone laughed about it, and Senator Sanders did give him additional time, but I still sent a personal note of apology afterwards to ensure I’d be invited back.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

We’re enabling millions of seniors to live healthy, safely and independently in the comfort of their own homes — which is frankly where they want to be — and out of hospitals and nursing homes. We are ensuring that our most vulnerable are not left behind, alone or hungry, giving them and their families peace of mind because they know that someone is going to check in on them and provide them with a tasty, nutritious meal and friendly visit. And if they have a loving pet companion, many programs tend to them, as well. For so many seniors, we are a lifeline, delivering so much more than just a meal. And that was before COVID-19.

Now we’re also delivering hope and kindness not only to the millions of seniors we served before, but to an entirely new pipeline of seniors rendered homebound due to the pandemic. And we don’t see those numbers going down anytime soon. That’s why we launched the Meals on Wheels Go Further Fund to help Make Good Go Further and effectively combat senior isolation and hunger in the years to come.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Where do I begin? I hear stories everyday of the lives that we touch across the country. And honestly, it’s often about much more than the meal itself. For example, while sheltering in place, a Meals on Wheels client named Edith in Scarborough, ME, hadn’t seen a single friend or family member in months, so her Meals on Wheels volunteer’s regular delivery proved incredibly fortuitous. Edith suffered a dangerous fall and couldn’t pick herself up off the floor. In desperate need of medical attention, she was unable to reach her phone.

Fortunately, her Meals on Wheels volunteer, Candy, happened to pay a routine visit to Edith’s home shortly after her fall. And, since Candy has been dutifully delivering meals to Edith for the last eight years, she instantly knew something was wrong when Edith failed to answer the door. Candy immediately called 911, and Edith was quickly rushed to the hospital where doctors were able to nurse her back to health.

For so many seniors served by Meals on Wheels, the volunteer delivering their meals is the only person they will interact with in a given week. That’s just one reason why I keep doing what I’m doing.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Don’t forget about vulnerable, homebound older adults. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought the issues of senior hunger and isolation to the forefront, and we’ve seen an outpouring of support, but we cannot let up now. Even when most of us are able to return to our pre-pandemic lives, there will still be millions of seniors in need of Meals on Wheels to live independently in their own homes. You can directly bolster our ability to deliver Meals on Wheels’ services to all seniors in need across the country amid the pandemic, during recovery and well beyond. Please visit to donate today.
  2. I encourage my fellow leaders to help us Make Good Go Further. Meals on Wheels is trusted and proven to meet the unique nutritional and social needs of seniors. We work directly with corporations, foundations and organizations of all shapes and sizes to develop creative ways to have meaningful impact at the both the national and community levels. By combining the resources and expertise of national partners with our vision, we have been able to address some of the most pressing issues facing seniors today — and into the future.
  3. I urge the Administration and Members of Congress to continue to push for more adequate funding to help support the senior nutrition programs that serve millions of our nation’s most vulnerable seniors each year. We are a proven and successful public-private partnership that enables older adults to remain healthier at home, avoiding more costly healthcare services. In fact, Meals on Wheels can serve a senior for an entire year for about the same cost as just one day in a hospital or 10 days in a nursing home.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

It’s about setting a vision, exciting people to want to join with you on the journey, and knocking down obstacles that get in the way. It’s about showing humility, vulnerability and authenticity; not taking yourself too seriously; being accessible, open, honest and inclusive. Leadership is an evolution and can happen at any level in an organization. It’s something that is earned, not bestowed.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Deliver on your promises and commitments.
  2. Take an interest in people, listen to what they say and remember it.
  3. Always thank people for their time/support/contributions (and handwritten notes stand out).
  4. Don’t forget to hit the pause button from time to time; we can’t take care of others if we don’t put the oxygen masks on ourselves first.
  5. If you must make a trade off, being respected is more important than being liked; you’ll never please everyone (no matter how much you try).

Interestingly, the first few of these “tips” have always been second nature to me, as they were values instilled in me by my parents. And they have served me well in my career. The latter two are ones I learned “on the job” and think they are valuable lessons to be shared.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.

I think of the song, “What the World Needs Now, is Love Sweet Love…it’s the only thing, that there’s just too little of…and no not just for some, but for everyone.” I’d love to see people across the globe singing that together, in harmony — literally and figuratively. We need more kindness; more understanding; more hope; more compassion; more empathy. If I could kick that off through my spheres of influence, that would make me very happy.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

One that really resonates with me is the saying that “Life is not about waiting for the storm to pass, it’s about learning to dance in the rain.” We must adapt to what’s in front of us; overcome our fears; make the best of things; live in the moment. That’s what I have always tried to do, and it has served me well. I think about the pandemic and how many people are suffering. Every day I’m filled with gratitude for what I do have, and I strive to take that appreciation and pay it forward for the people whose lives I can touch. And to make this world a little better.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them.

I know she’s terribly busy, but I’d love to have a meal with Oprah Winfrey…or better yet, to take her to deliver meals to seniors with me. Talk about someone who has experienced so much in her life and leveraged her influence to give back and make a difference! I think she could really ignite our ability to make good go further for the millions of vulnerable seniors who depend on us…and the millions more we’re not reaching but could.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

You can follow me on LinkedIn and see how Meals on Wheels is making good go further on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

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