Powerful Leadership: Serving Her City’s Seniors One Meal at a Time

When Charlene Crusoe-Ingram ’72 M.A. ’75 retired from a long corporate career as a senior executive, she knew she had more to give. Serving for the past seven years as the CEO of Meals On Wheels Atlanta (MOWA), she has transformed this nonprofit to bring food and comfort to the senior citizens of the Atlanta area.

For her efforts, Atlanta Magazine named Crusoe-Ingram one of the 500 Most Powerful Leaders of 2022.

“Raising money for seniors is not easy,” she explained. “I think telling the story of seniors in a way that elevates them … they’ve had, most of them, great careers of their own, nurses and teachers, but they’re at a time in their life where they need a little support.”

Crusoe-Ingram’s path to nonprofit leadership is in itself unique. Growing up in northern Mississippi, Crusoe-Ingram began her academic journey at the University of Dubuque (Iowa) on a full scholarship. She transferred to Bradley for her junior year to major in sociology.

After graduation, she earned her master’s in guidance and personnel services. After stints at several companies, Crusoe-Ingram joined Coca-Cola, where she remained for over 15 years before retiring as corporate vice president for diversity.

During her tenure, the soda giant placed her on various charitable boards in the Atlanta area, including MOWA, where she served as chair. A decade after her retirement, MOWA’s board asked her to take the CEO role. Crusoe-Ingram agreed, but for a two-year period only. Nearly seven years later, she remains in that role, and has made MOWA stronger than ever.

“I have no kids, so to stay active and engaged in the community has always been very important to me.”

MOWA, unlike many of its counterparts, relies on private donors rather than government funding for its flagship home-delivered meals program, so the greatest challenge is fundraising.

“It’s that sustaining model that is critical to a nonprofit like ours, thanking people, because you want to connect with them many times during the year and not just the times where you are begging for money,” Crusoe-Ingram said. “It’s love them every day, not once a year.”

Last year, MOWA produced over 500,000 meals, serving about 2000 seniors in the Atlanta area, with help from 33 employees and about 1100 volunteers. The deliveries also provide a lifeline for many clients, bringing that human connection.

“Our seniors, many of them are lonely. Having people love and value you just through conversation is very meaningful, and we can provide that.”

One of Crusoe-Ingram’s successes is the social enterprise model she developed that helps sustain MOWA and engages a younger audience through social media.

“I get great joy out of seeing the young team that has helped us build programs that connect to the community and continue to recruit new volunteers and new donors,” she said. “Some of the innovative things that we’re doing here are indeed unique.”

Her efforts have allowed MOWA to remodel its facilities; the nonprofit will soon open a new commercial kitchen that can produce twice the number of meals a day for clients.

What’s her secret? The idea of excellence in leadership and operations is paramount.

“We attract more donors when they see excellence every day … simple things, how clean the property is, what the seniors say about our food and how it is delivered to them.”

Success doesn’t come without challenges, like food and packaging cost increases that can be as high as 40% over last year. However, despite issues like these, MOWA has never been as strong as it is under Crusoe-Ingram’s leadership.

“I want us, and I think we’re on our way, to be a star in the nonprofit world that others can learn from,” she said. “That’s my wish. That’s my hope.”

- Mel Huang