Meals On Wheels GC Bob Herbolsheimer Discusses Non-Profit Work

Bob Herbolsheimer has thoroughly enjoyed his drive on the road to success, and he says he has many miles left to his journey.

The vice president and general counsel of the Meals On Wheels Association of America (MOWAA) grew up in central Illinois, where his parents' jobs foreshadowed his eventual career--his father owned a law firm, and his mother volunteered with the local Meals On Wheels program. In high school, Herbolsheimer had ambitions in environmental law and politics, which he pursued in college and law school.

After graduating from Hamline University School of Law in St. Paul, Minn., he headed to Washington, D.C., and landed a position as attorney adviser and special assistant to the deputy administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), where he worked on issues affecting the Clean Water Act. He left the EPA in 1985 to become an associate and then a partner at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips.

After he and his wife had their first child, Herbolsheimer returned to Illinois and ran for Congress in 1992 and 1994. Although he didn't win the elections, he found the experience enriching. He then joined his father's firm and later formed his own firm in D.C. with his wife, who is also a lawyer. He now operates the firm--Herbolsheimer Law Offices--while working at MOWAA, a nationally recognized non-profit that delivers meals to senior citizens through a volunteer force of 1.2 million people.

Q: How did you become the general counsel of MOWAA?

A: I provided pro bono assistance to non-profits and associations when I was practicing law. In 1996, I was contacted by MOWAA to help put together a foundation for the organization. In 2005, the CEOs asked me to come in-house because MOWAA had received a major grant that was looking at the impact of nutrition on hospital-discharged seniors. There was a lot of legal and programmatic work that needed to be done.

Q: What is a typical day like in MOWAA's legal department?

A: I am the sole legal adviser at MOWAA. Any issues with legal ramifications come to my attention. What I find so exciting is the sheer diversity of challenges, whether they concern intellectual property, employment or other matters. I also spend a lot of time on the business side of this non-profit working on initiatives and helping develop partnerships to support our cause.

Q: What do you like most about your job?

A: I enjoy being part of an important mission: to make sure that the seniors who've provided so much for us in this country can live their years with dignity and with the nutrition they need to sustain themselves.

Q: What is the most challenging aspect of your job?

A: Everything we do is geared toward addressing MOWAA's goal: to end senior hunger by 2020. By 2030, the number of seniors in the U.S. will double to 70 million. More than 12,000 people are turning 60 every single day. Meals On Wheels programs serve about 1 million meals a day to homebound seniors and seniors in congregate settings, but the shortfall of meals that are needed is at least double that number.

Q: How has the recession affected MOWAA and its programs?

A: The recession has seriously impacted MOWAA and our local meal programs, particularly as it relates to our ability to raise funds for nutrition services. Meals On Wheels programs now face the added threats of skyrocketing food and gasoline prices. When you combine the recession and rising food and transportation costs, it has a triple impact on the ability of our programs to provide and deliver meals, particularly in rural areas where staff or volunteers sometimes have to drive 40 or 50 miles to deliver a meal.

Q: What legislative issues impact your job? A: The Older Americans Act is up for reauthorization this year. Some local programs do not receive any federal funding for their nutrition programs. Of those that do, the federal government's funding, which is discretionary, under Title III of the Older Americans Act is actually less than 30 percent of the cost of a meal, as of 2008. The other 70 percent must be obtained by local Meals On Wheels programs from other sources.

Q: Why is March a significant month for MOWAA?

A: The nutrition services were added to the Older Americans Act in March 1972, so we have a lot of activity going on.

March For Meals started in 2002 and is a national campaign to get people engaged with their local Meals On Wheels programs. A couple years later, we started Mayors For Meals, through which more than 1,000 mayors across the country have personally delivered meals to demonstrate the importance of Meals On Wheels programs in their communities.

Q: What was the proudest moment of your legal career?

A: The day I found out that I was admitted to the bar, it was my father's birthday. He practiced law for nearly 60 years before he passed away. I was incredibly proud to call him and tell him the news.

I'm also proud that the grant program I was involved in when I first came to MOWAA evolved into a pilot program, Feel Good Food, which gives a short-term supply of meals to hospital-discharged seniors. It's had a major impact on reducing post-discharge costs, promoting wellness and preventing readmissions. Hospitals and insurance companies are trying to prevent readmissions, an issue that was addressed in the health care bill--they cost our country somewhere between $17 billion and $25 billion a year.

Q: What's it like to operate a law firm with your wife?

A: We are a good balance for each other. Working together enables us to collaborate spontaneously on client matters and client development. It also gives us flexibility to meet the demands of our family. My wife held terrific positions in Washington before and after she went to law school, and our experiences complement each other.

Q: What would you tell a young lawyer who wants to pursue an in-house career at a non-profit?

A: Volunteer for a local non-profit to get a sense of the issues they face. Be passionate about the service you intend to provide. Non-profit organizations need a great deal of assistance, and having a young attorney who is willing to devote the time and commitment to one is remarkable.

Q: If you weren't in the legal profession, what would your dream job be?

A: I'm torn between the idea of having a margarita bar in the Florida Keys or becoming an auctioneer.

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