Photograph courtesy Colleen Brinkmann

Philanthropy & Nonprofits

Colleen Brinkmann Shares Leadership Lessons From the North Texas Food Bank

The former chief philanthropy officer shares how she went from a childhood in India to successfully leading a $55 million capital campaign in her new book.

In Colleen Brinkmann’s new book, Moonshot Leadership: Catalyzing an Enduring Nonprofit Brand (Against All Odds), the former chief philanthropy officer for the North Texas Food Bank chronicles how the girl who grew up in India, the daughter of an Indian educator and a Methodist missionary, helped raise more than $110 million for the organization in just three years. That was all after her planned retirement in 2015, which she put off after the diagnosis of both her husband and Jan Pruitt, the NTFB’s iconic CEO, with cancer. I chatted with Brinkmann yesterday about her foray into writing and her plans for the future.

Did you know when you left the NTFB that you were going to write a book?

I had a notion. I knew I had a story to tell, but I was frankly so exhausted at the end of the capital campaign and everything that occurred during that time frame that I knew I just wanted to exhale. But I did know that I had a story that was a kind of a case study. So I decided to just buy a stack of index cards and jot down thoughts over a couple of weeks. After I amassed quite a few of those, I then just started putting it into a word document and I didn’t even proof it. I just wrote it. Because I didn’t want to micromanage it or try to “fix it.”

What do you think makes the North Texas Food Bank unique?

The North Texas Food Bank is one of 205 food banks in the country under the umbrella of Feeding America. And out of those 200 food banks, North Texas Food Bank is in the top 10 percent of food banks based on output of food into the community, so it’s up there with New York City, L.A., Chicago, Silicon Valley, Houston. So out of that group, what makes the Food Bank special is that it started to innovate 20 years ago. When Jan Pruitt started there 20 years ago, it was just whatever food came in the door—whether it was Twinkies or carrots, they were accepted and distributed. But Jan very quickly said we need to really aggressively go after healthy foods and distribute a majority of healthy foods. Now 98 percent of the food the North Texas Food Bank distributes is nutritious food. Jan started a shift that influenced other large nonprofit food banks.

Jan Pruitt, the leader of NTFB for two decades, was diagnosed with cancer four months into the organizations $55 million capital campaign. That must have been a shock to both you and the organization. 

It was a pivotal moment. I equate it to the organization being like a massive ocean liner that had been set by her on course with a compass, with an exacting target. The ocean liner, upon hearing that news, listed and tremored and shook, but it stayed the course. But why did it stay the course? As I reflected on that, I realized that the things that she put into place along with the board over the prior decade fortified the organization to withstand the loss of Jan. I was pushed into an unfamiliar space for what I call the battlefield promotion, because I had to very quickly assure everybody that we were okay. To the board of directors, to capital campaign co-chairs, to my teams, to the rest of the staff, to 180 employees of the food bank, to the donors, we had to just say, “You know what? We’re going to be okay. Yes, this is a shock to our ribs, but we’re going to be okay.”

Why did you decide to go with a lunar metaphor for the book title?

I feel firmly that moonshots are not solo gigs. It is not a one person, plant your flag on the moon. It is truly a team. In my story, I talk about how many years Jan and I worked together where we didn’t have the right team. We didn’t have the right executive team on down. We were still raising 10 to 20 percent more money every year because there was a focus on building the brand and saying yes to everybody, whether it was Joe Boss Tire Shop or AT&T. We were going after opportunities all the time; both of us were very opportunistic. So we kept expanding the spaces around the table for more and more people to come, and the database grew from 7,000 records in 2004 to a half a million records when I left a year ago. Fundraising increased from $2.6 million in 2004 to nearly $18 million when I left. That equates to like a 588 percent increase. A lot of that happened without even having the right team.

How did you fix the team?

There was the change moment, and I remember because it came after three or four years of what I call my dark years. Jan talked to the board and said we need people expertise. We don’t have an HR Department. We have a high turnover of people from the top down. So they added a chief HR officer to the board of directors. She said you need to have a VP of HR on staff, and you need to get some assessment and consulting for your executive team because they’re not cohesive. That’s when I met Joe Frodsham, who helped me publish the book. He then came and started coaching us and assessing our strengths and weaknesses. Then we were able to manage our teams better, it made our teams better, I mean it just trickled down.

So your advice is to invest in people?

As I have talked over the years with other food banks and nonprofits, I say, “You know what? You’ve got to invest in people.” You may think that’s a given, but a lot of nonprofits are afraid of that. I would go to Jan and I would say, “Jan, I’m not able to hire the right people to do this transformational work.” And because of her wiring, she would say, “How much more do you need for that?” I would give her a range, and she didn’t answer in fear. What she said was, “Colleen, if we increase our budget, you know you’ll have to fundraise more for that.” And I said, “That’s okay, we can fundraise more. If I have the right people, we can raise more money.” And so she immediately green-lighted it for me.

With the old guard gone, with you and Jan gone, how do you think the leadership looks going forward with Trisha Cunningham, Erica Yaeger, and the current staff?

It is poised for even greater success. I have known Trisha for a number of years, and then I got to know Erica probably a year before she interviewed. Both of them are the right people for this season. The role of CEO of the North Texas Food Bank now requires a whole other set of skills, and Trisha brings that. She brings the rigor and planning from a corporate environment, because the food bank it is a very complex organization as the supply chain. I know of people who thought they could step into that role and they thought it was more like—this is going to sound silly—but sort of like a soft bunny of a nonprofit. But it is a complex, driven, supply chain company. I call it the Microsoft of nonprofits, it is that complex.

Trisha brings not only the business side, but she has a tremendous heart, a genuine heart for the mission based on her upbringing in Western Kentucky, and she’s also very beloved by employees because she’s so accessible to them. For Erica, this was a great advancement opportunity from UTD where she had done good things. Now, she’s raising $18 million, $19 million a year, almost double what she was doing at UTD. She is absolutely bringing in some new fresh ideas. So both of them are very well poised to take it to the next level.

Here in Dallas, we have a crisis with childhood poverty. The current stat is that one in five children in North Texas lives in poverty. Food insecurity is slightly on the decline, but we’re still above the national average. Do you ever think that the success of the food bank is problematic in that it lets some of the underlying issues fester, because the nonprofit world is filling the gap for the government?

Yeah, I think that’s a very good point you brought up. I feel that some sort of a two-pronged approach is required. One is, we have to keep emphasizing—whether it’s through advocacy in the halls of the elected officials in Austin and in Washington—that the private sector cannot be the full safety net, and that we’re going to always need legislation. It can never be fully handled by the community. We need the government’s support for hunger.

Number two, is that people feel things. The guy on the corner with the cardboard sign has been the face of hunger for the last 30, 40 years. But it started changing 15 years ago. I mean, I saw it changing. Not only through data, but also through meeting people. There are people right now, at this moment, working in a building somewhere, but they’re worried about how they’re going to feed their family this weekend. So we have to somehow understand that hunger will only be resolved when there’s a better working wage and affordable housing.

A subset of all of this is that nutritious foods need to be more affordable. We’re only shooting ourselves in the foot, because people are not going to have the health down the road, and then that’s going to be a bigger burden on society. I feel like the main hurdle in America to reducing hunger is accessibility. There truly is enough food in America and even in the world for everybody. In foreign countries, it becomes such a political issue of control and punishment of certain sectors that want food. In this country, it’s affordability, it’s access, and there’s this sense, a growing sense over the last few years, that if you are not able to take care of 100 precent of your needs, that there’s something wrong with you. You’re not working hard enough. That is so far from the truth. I mean, we do that to school teachers that are going on strike in Colorado. They’re working hard, but they can’t cover all their needs.

Do you see hunger now as a workplace issue?

Five or six years ago, I just decided we’re going to shift our messaging to really boldly say that the business community here keeps talking about North Texas being this strong economic engine, one of the best in the United States. But you need to realize that hunger is a threat to that. We started ratcheting up our message that it’s an economic threat. That you’ve got employees that aren’t able to perform because they are worried about feeding their family and maybe they haven’t eaten themselves.

It’s the kids that are going to grow up not as healthy, and they’re your new employees. So we chiseled into that message, but still people don’t realize it. I was speaking to a group of volunteers in a warehouse several years ago, maybe five or six years ago. I gave an orientation and then I left the room. I noticed somebody was following me behind me, and when I got into the hall, there was this woman standing with me and she said, “Thank you for your methods.” She told me her name and she said, “I’m the CEO of this engineering firm here, and I want you to know that I was raised by a single mom, and we got food from the food pantry, and that pantry got it from a food bank.” And then she gestured back into the room and said, “You know? Nobody in that room would ever imagine that I faced huger for many years.”

So Colleen, what’s next for you? Besides the book tour.

[laughs] Well, I view this as my third season, and two words define it: freedom and joy. I came from India as a scholarship student, went to college in California, and then finished up at SMU. I’m so grateful that they gave me a scholarship. But I’ve always worked, you know, since I was 19. So I love this season of freedom and joy. We bought a house in Northern California, and we’re moving there Friday actually. My husband just retired after forty years at AT&T. I am passionate about sharing the story with anyone that wants to hear, and if it helps one person in the room, that gives me gratification. I know that on a personal level, I want to stay healthy and active, and I am thrilled that I got to pass the baton to Erica and keep saluting Trisha, too. I don’t have a drive to get back into that phase. I’m enjoying the freedom and this new thing that I’m doing. I’m very grateful, Kathy, to be able to do it. You know?

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