Navigating Nonprofits

Power advice with Richard LeBer, president and CEO of the Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida.

While serving as the president of the National Linen Service in Atlanta in the early 2000s, Richard LeBer helped provide textile rental services to more than 45,000 restaurants, hospitals and hotels in 16 states. Through these restaurants—his customers—he started getting involved with food banks in Atlanta. “When I began to realize the remarkable job food banks do, I fell in love with the cause,” says the 61-year-old, now president and CEO of the Harry Chapin Food Bank. “I started in corporate America but working with food banks is my way of giving back to the community.”

LeBer was good friends with Bill Bolling, the founder of the Atlanta Community Food Bank, and started assisting by raising money and serving as a member of the board. When a position opened in 2012 for a vice president in finance and strategy, LeBer “fell into a calling.” He spent a little over three years as a member of the senior leadership team and adviser to Bolling. The organization works with more than 600 nonprofit partners, from community kitchens to childcare centers, and distributes over 60 million meals to over 755,000 people in 29 counties across Atlanta and North Georgia. LeBer was the liaison to the partner organizations, which includes Feeding America, the leading domestic hunger-relief charity, and developed two strategic plans to help the food bank double in size and expand its programs.

When he received a call three years later from the Florida Association of Food Banks (now called Feeding Florida), a partner of Feeding America, who were looking for an interim executive director, his first reaction was, “Yeah, that sounds like fun.”

The role allowed LeBer to take what he learned at a citywide level and apply it to an entire state, working with 12 member food banks that support more than 2,200 local charities and feed over 2.8 million Floridians fighting hunger. LeBer traveled all across the state, visiting each of the food banks, which is how he became familiar with the Fort Myers-based Harry Chapin Food Bank of Southwest Florida, the region’s largest hunger relief network. “Atlanta was a much bigger market than Southwest Florida, so I learned a lot about the possibilities for ways to serve the community,” he says, adding that he brought skills from his corporate days, such as strategic planning, to his current role, which he’s held for four years.

Harry Chapin Food Bank, now in its 35th year, distributes 24 million pounds of food annually, feeding about 28,000 people per week. LeBer says they donated about $43 million worth of food last year, but the organization still has the potential to double in size and reach even more people, provide even more food. In 2019, Harry Chapin Food Bank received support from organizations such as Publix Super Markets Charities in the form a $150,000 check toward a new refrigerated truck and partnered with the School District of Lee County on a pilot program to donate items close to their expiration date. Now food from schools that would otherwise go to waste is instead dished out to those in need in the community.

BANKING ON EXPERIENCE: Richard LeBer has combined executive skills with his knowledge of nonprofits.

“It’s tremendously rewarding to go out in the community and see what we do through mobile pantries and food pantries,” he says. “It’s hard not to walk away from that feeling motivated and inspired.”

LeBer has garnered 30 years of operating, finance, and consulting experience in non-profit and for-profit sectors—10 years of which have been working with food banks—and for him, a big part of program development “comes down to people,” he says. Of course, the tangible results of his work—ensuring more people in the community are fed, less are suffering from hunger—are motivation enough to keep going down this path, but “it’s also rewarding to see people in the organization grow,” he says.

For those looking to get involved in the nonprofit sector, he advises seeking out the best people you can in the community, who you can learn from. “Find a great organization that is doing work you admire,” he says. “Nonprofits need a lot of help, so the best thing to do is roll up your sleeves and learn the ropes.”