Kate Atwood on Overcoming Adversity and Leading in the Nonprofit Sector

Arby's Foundation Executive Director Kate Atwood (center) leads a breakfast conversation on her experience founding a nonprofit and fighting childhood hunger.

Arby's Foundation Executive Director Kate Atwood (center) leads a breakfast conversation on her experience founding a nonprofit and fighting childhood hunger.

When Kate Atwood lost her mother to breast cancer at age 12, she was determined to be a survivor and outrun her grief. Instead of processing her loss, she focused on school, doing well in classes and even serving as class president. Despite putting on a good public face, “Inside, I was just kind of a shell. My spirit was totally broken, and I had no support system,” Kate said. “I had a great dad, a great older brother, but in the face of grief, we all found ourselves a bit lost.”

While attending the University of Virginia as an undergrad, Kate volunteered at a camp for children who have suffered a loss. Sharing her own story of loss and survival for the first time was an empowering experience, one that started her on the path to founding Kate’s Club, nonprofit that provides a community for children who have lost a parent or sibling.

Now the Executive Director of the Arby's Foundation, Kate joined other social entrepreneurs at CCI this morning as our May Leadership Breakfast speaker. We are so grateful for her frankness in telling her story and for her advice to aspiring leaders in the nonprofit sector.

When Kate was starting Kate’s Club, the nonprofit sector wasn’t a hot career path. “I was 22 years old, and I looked around and there was nobody I could lean on,” Kate said. “I really felt alone out there doing this.” She had to work three jobs to sustain herself in the beginning, but eventually the organization began to thrive. To date, Kate’s Club has served almost 1,000 Atlanta children. “It’s really become a community, and the culture is very uplifting and very fun, which is I think what I am most proud of,” Kate said.

Kate’s transition to the Arby's’ Foundation was her next big challenge, as she set out to help the iconic brand refocus and restructure its charitable purpose in the communities it served. “My motto is living by giving. I just feel like the best way to live is to give,” Kate said. “It is healing, it is empowering, there are so many joys that come along with giving and I feel so fortunate that I get the opportunity to give back in my personal life and in my career.”

Kate talked about how she has approached her social responsibility a little different than most, by focusing not on her gifts but rather her losses and weaknesses. “I didn’t look at how I could go out and help the world by what I had an abundance of, or by what I had more of that I could give away,” Kate said. “I actually looked at what I lost. I looked at what made me weaker, and I went out and I made that stronger in the community.”

Kate has applied a similar strategy to her work at the Arby’s Foundation. “I’m really proud of Arby’s, because they went a little bit of a vulnerable route,” Kate said. “They looked at an area of their business that they could improve and then set out to make a measurable difference in the world as leaders in the fight to end childhood hunger.”  Taking the first step to change their kids menu to include healthier options, they could then align their mission with their business and brand values. Kate spoke at length about childhood hunger as one of the biggest public health threats to the future of our nation: hunger is a barrier to learning, growing, and giving back to the world. “It really is something everyone should want to change, especially because it is a problem that together we can solve.”

Since Kate joined the foundation in 2011, Arby’s has donated over $15 million to fighting childhood hunger and has increased summer meals for kids by over 17 million. But she still faces obstacles. “If our mission is to end childhood hunger, we’ve got to get D.C. to act,” Kate said. She said lawmakers in Washington have the opportunity to amend a key piece of legislation, the Child Nutrition Reauthorization act that would remove bureaucratic barriers and significantly improving access for summer meals for children in this country. It would be a big win in the right direction.

For aspiring civic leaders, Kate had several pieces of advice. She said the best way to introduce your organization to a mass audience is with a compelling story of someone your organization has helped. If you are a Founder, you may have to look at being vulnerable and sharing your own story. She also argued that building a brand is just as important for nonprofits as it is for for-profits. For example, Kate’s Club was the only organization of its kind to be named after a survivor, rather than someone who passed away, which impacted the way people think about it and connect to it. Additionally, Kate said there are many small- to mid-size companies and firm in Atlanta that would be easier to use as sources of funding than large corporations like Coca-Cola, especially for nonprofits that are just starting up.

Kate said Atlanta has changed a lot since she founded Kate’s Club in 2003. “We’ve come such a long way just to convene this type of group and have this conversation,” Kate said.

At the end of the breakfast, we made sure to ask Kate our favorite question: Who is your hero/heroine? After some contemplation, Kate listed Eleanor Roosevelt, Tina Turner, and her mother.

For more information on Kate’s Club and the Arby’s Foundation, be sure to check out their websites here and here. Thanks to Kate and to everyone who came out and helped make it a great conversation!