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Weathering the Economic Storm at Senior Connections

Five years of economic uncertainty act like a double-negative for nonprofits. Unlike for-profit businesses, who see demand dwindle as consumers hold tight to their wallets, allowing them to scale back operations, many nonprofits see demand increase during uncertain times. Because turning away people in need is not an option for most nonprofits, they’re forced to find new and leaner ways to operate.  

For GCN member organization Senior Connections the solution has been unexpected. An organization that prepares and delivers 2,500 meals a day for seniors as part of the Meals on Wheels program—in addition to providing in-home care, building repairs, and health and wellness classes—Senior Connections has been predictably affected by the slow economic recovery, sequestration, and the recent government shutdown, and is currently bracing for the consequences of cuts to SNAP, which promises to affect nearly 300,000 Georgians who are either elderly or living with disabilities, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. 

So how do they meet these new demands? Their answer: a diversified funding scheme centered around a profit-making social enterprise, along with a continued commitment to all-hands-on-deck advocacy.

Catering for a Cause

Even before the economic downturn, leadership at Senior Connections recognized that regular funding channels were never stable, and highly vulnerable to market uncertainty. That’s when, while attending a conference with other senior-focused nonprofits, CEO Debra Furtado realized Senior Connections had, in its operational DNA, the capacity to run a for-profit catering service.

“We had to retrain everyone, including our chefs. It really has changed our whole mindset and culture, and we’re still working on it after two years.”

“We already have a kitchen, we already have chefs on staff, we have delivery trucks, and people are always asking us to [cater] different events,” Furtado said. “I thought, ‘Shoot, why not get paid for that?’ You don’t have to reinvent the wheel.”

Chief Marketing Officer Sally Eggleston said that starting the program was “a conscious decision for an alternative revenue source, the same way Debra has diversified grant-seeking and fundraising. You can’t continue to count on one area of funding anymore. It’s great to have a solid revenue stream that fits in with our mission and can grow exponentially.” 

With the help of a mature and engaged board, Furtado introduced Connections Catering into the organization’s strategic plan, treating the full-service catering company like any other Senior Connections program, with its own budget, revenue, and goals, and managed by the same Kitchen Operations Manager that oversees its Meals on Wheels food-prep. 

This year’s revenue goal for Connections Catering is $75,000, a 25-30% profit that goes back into the organization, directly helping seniors in need. Using the positive impact of their revenues as a selling point, Connections Catering has become an attractive vendor for organizations who want to do good while getting their meeting or event catered. Senior Connection’s board members, in particular, have been great salesmen for the program, referring their employers and business contacts.

“Using us for catering is another great opportunity for our board members, advisory council, and partners to give back,” Furtado said. “People will come to me and say, ‘Wow, I have to cater weekly meetings anyway, and now I can do that and support Meals on Wheels? It’s a no brainer.’”

While Connections Catering has been a great way for Senior Connections to diversify funding, it has not come without growing pains. Entering a sector full of for-profit competition, Furtado notes, is not a move that should be taken lightly. Among other challenges, it requires an entirely different level of customer service, food quality, and appreciation for feedback. 

“It’s a lot different delivering meals to folks who are just grateful to get a meal,” Furtado said. “We had to retrain everyone, including our chefs. It really has changed our whole mindset and culture, and we’re still working on it after two years.”

Championing Through the Challenges

Even in the midst of a worldwide recession, Senior Connections has kept its commitment to advocacy in all forms, from top-level strategizing all the way down to day-to-day operations. Furtado doesn’t mince words regarding advocacy’s importance, for her own nonprofit and others. “The bottom line for charities is: If you take away our governmental funding, people will die. We can’t be scared to advocate.”

Advocacy is written directly into the organization’s strategic plan, and board member Dr. Missy Cody, retired head of Georgia State University’s Division of Nutrition, is the board-appointed “Advocacy Champion,” who advocates on behalf of the organization when in Washington, D.C. In addition, Senior Connections sends letters to elected officials twice a year explaining the community benefit of the organization, highlighting the amount of money it saves taxpayers by providing cheaper, more efficient services than government alternatives. 

“The bottom line for charities is: If you take away our governmental funding, people will die. We can’t be scared to advocate.”

Another part of Senior Connection’s advocacy plan recruits elected officials to deliver meals to seniors in need. Once representatives see first-hand the impact the organization has on seniors in need, Furtado said, “they’re hooked.”

Both Furtado and Eggleston emphasized how little it costs organizations to create a solid advocacy plan.

“It takes time and planning,” Eggleston said, “but it doesn’t really require a budget. It’s more of the old adage, ‘the squeaky wheel gets the grease.’ You just have to keep pressing [elected officials], and be consistent.”

The State of Georgia Seniors

The need for quality senior care in Georgia can be intimidating: the state ranked 43rd in the America’s Health Rankings® 2013 Senior Report, a comprehensive analysis of senior population health conducted by the United Health Foundation. The report also ranked Georgia 45th in overall senior health and 43rd in senior food security.

“We rank high in things we you don’t want to be high in,” Furtado said. “There are people out there that need meals now, so if we don’t continue to advocate for them, who else will?”

Though Senior Connections takes these challenges as they come, they have the leadership experience and expertise, along with a fully functional strategic plan, to navigate uncertain times. Their nonprofit, like others that have weathered economic downturns, has found that the difference between sustainability and living fundraiser-to-fundraiser, or grant-to-grant, is the ability to steer your own destiny—to turn a profit with what you’ve got on hand, and to be your own most outspoken advocate.

Dan Watson is a Communications Coordinator at the Georgia Center for Nonprofits.

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