Executive of the Year

Healthcare Achievement Awards 2020

Executive of the Year

Charles Gehring, LifeCare Alliance

When Charles Gehring took over the reins at LifeCare Alliance in 2001, it quickly became clear to him that the venerable social service organization was not in a good place financially. 

“We had $250,000 to our name and about a month’s worth of working money on top of that,” says Gehring. “It was clear not all of our funding sources were going to continue and we just couldn’t keep up. To continue to take clients we had to do something.”

He got to work.

Drawing from 15 years of experience in the for-profit sector at companies such as Anheuser-Busch and Sanese Services, as well as four years as chief operating officer at Catholic Social Services, Gehring concluded that LifeCare, which offered the Meals-on-Wheels program, community nursing services and in-home care, needed to reduce its dependence on government and United Way funding. 

He came up with a five-prong approach: Expand the volunteer staff, increase donations, fund an endowment, merge with smaller social-service agencies and establish some way of making money. 

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“We’re a very basic-needs organization,” says Gehring, 63. “We didn’t want to say ‘no’ to people who needed our help. We wanted to figure out how we were going to continue to provide for everyone who needed us.”

Now, nearly two decades later, the 122-year-old alliance is financially stable and offering many more services than in the past. 

“Chuck is a dynamic leader who blends a unique ability to care deeply about what impacts each of the clients we serve while also really seeing what the agency needs, often before it needs it,” says Rebecca Hurd, vice president of advancement for LifeCare. 

During Gehring’s tenure, the alliance has expanded its volunteer base so that fewer paid Meals-on-Wheels drivers are needed. Many of the volunteers now come from 110 organizations and companies whose workers deliver meals during their lunch hours, saving LifeCare Alliance money and allowing it to keep up with client needs.

Gehring began pursuing mergers with other organizations in 2003, when LifeCare assumed operation of Madison County Meals-on-Wheels from the Madison County Hospital. Other mergers followed, including with Project OpenHand-Columbus, Columbus Cancer Clinic, Impact Safety, Meals-on-Wheels in Champaign and Logan counties and, in 2017, the Central Ohio Diabetes Association. 

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“The mergers allowed us to get to more clients and allowed clients to get more services,” Gehring says. “If we were going to stay in business we had to do something different. The predictions (for social service agencies) were dour. We were too dependent on the next $1 coming in from the government.”

Gehring also set in motion fundraising efforts that garnered $7.2 million to purchase and renovate a warehouse into a meals distribution center, food pantry, dining center, wellness center and storage space. And he set a goal to have a $20 million endowment by the end of this year, which the organization has nearly met with the help of an anonymous $5 million donation.

Perhaps his most audacious project, however, was figuring out a way for LifeCare Alliance to produce revenue itself. Those programs, which include a corporate wellness service and a catering service, now provide about 17 percent of LifeCare’s budget.

Hurd says LifeCare is lucky to have a leader in Gehring who’s willing to try new things while maintaining and expanding core services. One achievement he’s especially proud of is LifeCare’s senior pet care program, which began 12 years ago.

“What we saw was that a lot of (Meals-on-Wheels) clients were giving part of their meal to their pet because they couldn’t get to a store to buy pet food or couldn’t afford to buy it,” Gehring says. 

Using a San Diego program as a model, Gehring convinced several large retailers to donate pet food that was nearly out of date or was being tossed because a bag had broken open.

LifeCare staff and volunteers deliver that food to seniors. “It’s crazy popular,” Gehring says. And it helps meet one of LifeCare’s missions: Helping older people stay in their homes.

“To be able to give a person later in life a little happiness and the ability to live in their home where they want to be, I don’t know how you put a price on that,” Gehring says. “I tell my employees that when they go home at the end of the day, I hope they recognize they’ve done something very important today: They’ve given people health and independence.”

Kathy Lynn Gray is a freelance writer.