From the time she started thinking about career options as a teenager, Erin Pulling knew she wanted to do something that helped people. Initially, she chose to study psychology, thinking she’d eventually become a therapist or social worker. But that didn’t last long.
“I remember having a moment of realization in college when I thought, ‘My skill sets are not aligned with being a therapist; I don’t have that kind of temperament or patience,’” Pulling recalled. “I always knew I wanted to go into nonprofit work, so I pursued that instead.”
Sitting in her office overlooking a parking lot and the winding off- and on-ramps of Interstate 70, the president and CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies strikes a balance between commanding and compassionate, leader and listener. Angular glasses frame her mask-covered face, an asymmetrical pixie cut completing the look. (“I got this haircut early on during COVID and my teenagers said, seriously, Mom? I said, I’m 50… I like it and don’t care what anyone else thinks.”) Family photos with her husband and their three children, ages 17, 14, and 10, pepper Pulling’s office, along with a bookshelf stocked with such titles as “The Jossey-Bass Handbook of Nonprofit Leadership and Management” and “Boards That Make a Difference,” a whiteboard full of notes from her kids, a coat rack with colorful scarves and back-up blazers, and a large desk riddled with business cards, notes, and reports ready for her review.
Pulling comfortably embraces the many roles she plays each day: mother, mentor, student, partner, and president and CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies, a position she assumed in January 2019. Since beginning her nonprofit career in her early 20s at Project Angel Heart, Pulling has shown an aptitude for actively embracing the things she doesn’t know, working tenaciously to learn about and understand them, and bringing individuals into her orbit who have mastered those topics and can expertly advise and help her lead organizations to success.
“I’m comfortable with what I don’t know, what I’m not good at, and knowing I need to surround myself with people who are stronger at things than I am and who are smarter than I am,” Pulling said. “I’ve learned that it’s absolutely fine to say, ‘I don’t know.’”
A Centennial, Colorado, native and the middle child of three who was often told she was “born 40,” Pulling attended college in California at Santa Clara University, a private Jesuit school with a social justice focus. After graduating, she joined the Jesuit Volunteer Corps in Houston, Texas, and was placed as a case manager at a nonprofit that supported people living with HIV/AIDS.
“This was in 1993, so a lot of the job was about death and dying,” Pulling recalled. “It wasn’t the job I necessarily wanted — it’s the placement I happened to receive — but I ended up loving it. The work and the community, helping people manage medical care and make end-of-life decisions, telling them what resources were available to them: Basically, filling a human services gap.”
She returned to Colorado a year later and started volunteering at Project Angel Heart, a Denver nonprofit founded in 1991 that prepares and delivers medically tailored meals to people living with severe illnesses. Soon, Pulling was hired as a part-time administrative assistant. From there, she quickly acquired roles within the organization with increasing degrees of responsibility.
“The organization was not in a good place; it was deeply in debt. The founder left three months after I started. I was waiting tables on the side because we were often asked to go without paychecks,” said Pulling. “But I was 23 years old and was [maybe too] easily accepting. I stayed because I saw through all of the challenges and figured, ‘Maybe I can make a difference. I can learn the things the organization needs.’ I was soon managing the books and building a donor database. I ended up staying there for 24 years, the last 14 of which I was CEO.”
While working at Project Angel Heart, Pulling got her master’s degree in nonprofit management and continued to throw herself into situations where she could learn by doing. Gradually, she built a circle of people around her who she could trust and lean on for advice.
“That’s one of the most important things for me: to have a network. Colleagues inside and outside the organization who I can trust and have any conversations with — leadership positions can be lonely,” said Pulling. “I let my guard down pretty easily; I prefer to show up as authentically as possible, maybe too much sometimes. When I started this position, I told myself I wasn’t going to curse anymore. That only lasted a week. But yeah, just being okay with what I don’t know and surrounding myself with that network of colleagues — that’s been immensely helpful.”
As Pulling climbed the ranks at Project Angel Heart, she helped turn the debt-ridden organization into a high-performing nonprofit. When she was approached by a recruiter in 2018 for the president and CEO position with Food Bank of the Rockies, she wasn’t looking to leave her job. (“Maybe this says something about my intelligence, but even after 24 years there I was still challenged.”) However, Pulling was confident the organization would be okay without her, so she said yes to an interview — even though she wasn’t convinced it would be a good fit for either side.
“Some of the things I’m really passionate about are equity, nutrition, and advocacy. And at that time, those weren’t pillars of Food Bank of the Rockies,” Pulling explained. “The organization was transactional. The mission statement had the word ‘procure’ in it. And that really was what Food Bank of the Rockies saw as its role – solely procuring and distributing food.”
Regardless, about halfway through her first interview, Pulling was surprised to have a board member enthusiastically support what she was saying. From there, knowing the organization was ready for a change, Pulling was all in. She took over as president and CEO of Food Bank of the Rockies in January 2019.
One of Pulling’s first actions in her new position involved organizing dozens of site visits to Hunger Relief Partners across Colorado and Wyoming. She also arranged a listening session with about 50 partners. It did not go well.
“We got beat up pretty bad,” Pulling recalled. “It was meant to be a listening session for strategic planning, but we had people use words like ‘punitive.’ We were told, ‘You don’t care about advocacy. You don’t care about equity. You don’t care about culturally appropriate food.’ It was tough to hear.”
Her work laid out for her, Pulling began the painstaking process of piecing together the best team possible to achieve Food Bank of the Rockies’ new direction of infusing equity, nutrition, inclusion, and customer service for its 800+ Hunger Relief Partners into every aspect of its operations. She had hour-long one-on-one sessions with employees, recruited team members, and diligently learned about every aspect of Food Bank of the Rockies from the ground up. She also made some hard decisions.
“I wasn’t a strategic leader for my first year, because basic operations really needed to change, which is challenging,” Pulling admitted. “I don’t know the first thing about operations. I don’t know how to manage a fleet [of vehicles]. I don’t know how to increase inventory turns. But I know how to ask the right questions and expect more.”
She paused, then added: “I don’t expect people to do anything more than what I do, though. Rather, I expect people to treat one another and our community partners well. And I believe in hiring the right people and then stepping back and even giving people room to shine. I believe in challenging ourselves; we have to do things that are hard and that stretch us personally and organizationally. I believe in facilitating opportunities and accepting occasional failure as a necessary component of innovation.”
Making the changes Pulling felt were necessary took time, energy, and exertion, but finally, around her one-year anniversary, she began to feel like things were taking root.
“It hasn’t been without missteps and mistakes, and we’ve definitely missed some things,” she said. “But we have people here who truly share my passion for organizational excellence, and share it at their core. I really believe in giving people a voice, and in listening to what they are experiencing and trusting their experience. Not just doing lip service to it, but really listening. I care deeply about our team and hearing their perspectives, and hearing from them that they have more of a voice makes me feel proud.”
When asked to identify areas that demonstrate the changes Food Bank of the Rockies has made over the last three years, Pulling pointed to the recent rebrand, which was implemented in 2021 after a year of research, brainstorming, and conversations. “I’m so proud of it,” she said. “It exemplifies the transformation we’ve made to become representative of our community, building on our strong name recognition and community support, and growth and opportunity. It’s about how we’re showing up for the community and our partners, how we’re listening and responding.”
In terms of what’s next, Pulling said it’s all about sustainability, consistency, and continuing the high standards of service that Food Bank of the Rockies has embraced in recent years.
“When we emerge from this time of continual crisis, it’ll be about how we sustain this high level of food distribution,” she explained. “At Food Bank of the Rockies, we believe that access to nutritious food should be a basic right. It is our job to work together collaboratively [with community partners] to provide that. If we want to have a more productive, effective, efficient society, nutritious food is the essential building block. The work we’ve taken on in the last couple of years — more investment in culturally relevant and nutritious food, advocacy and equity work — all of those things are areas where we’ve just started scratching the surface.”
As if on cue, Pulling’s cell phone began to buzz; she was needed downstairs for an interview, then a meet and greet with donors. If she was tired, it didn’t show. It was time to go to work.