Matt Knott: The Circle of Faith

By Sally Anne Flecker | Fall 2015

Matt Knott (FIN ’92)had grown up listening hard to the messages around him. His large Irish Catholic family wasn’t wealthy, but they weren’t poor, either. They felt blessed, he says, and his parents nurtured the notion that from those to whom much is given, much is expected.

In theology and philosophy of religion classes at Notre Dame, he listened hard to the big questions: Why are you here? What are you being called to do?

And even while he was climbing the corporate ladders at Arthur Andersen, Quaker Oats and PepsiCo, he was tuned into deeper thoughts: Was he doing what he was called to do? How should he use his experiences and skills to make a difference to people who weren’t given so many opportunities? And, once he became a father, he brooded. Was he a good example to his children?

At a parish retreat, his pastor talked about vocation as the intersection of two circles: what you’re good at and what the world around you needs. Most people, he said, only pay attention to the first, and are largely blind to the second. Knott thought about that one long and hard.

Then came a day when the president of Gatorade, one of PepsiCo’s biggest brands, called Knott into his office. The chief marketing officer had resigned. Knott was being promoted. “This was an incredible opportunity,” Knott says. “It should have been a culmination of everything I had worked for up to that point. And yet I felt like it wasn’t on the right path.”

So Knott did what he always did. He paid attention to that feeling. A year later, in 2008, he left PepsiCo and pointed himself in a new direction, joining Feeding America, the largest domestic hunger-relief organization in the country.

Not that he’s a saint. He’s quick to point that out. He’s a man who has found that intersection — that second part of the puzzle.

“The motivation behind my move was to take my skills and experiences and the things that I’ve become reasonably good at, and make a difference in the community,” says Knott, who came on board as vice president of planning, was promoted to chief operating officer in 2010, and as president in 2013. Feeding America is the third largest nonprofit in the United States, supporting a national network of 200 member food banks that, in turn, support 60,000 agencies, soup kitchens, food pantries, and homeless shelters — collectively providing food to 46 million Americans a year.

One of Knott’s missions is making new inroads into recapturing food that would otherwise go to waste. Some of that goes on already, of course. But Knott, who knows the U.S. food supply chain as well as anyone, sees plenty of opportunity; for instance, at food service operations, restaurants and convenience stores where there’s still a lot of good food thrown away. “The other really big opportunity is looking upstream to the agricultural community,” he says. “Because of market economics, there are often billions of pounds of food that go unharvested or unsold. And rather than plow them under, we would say there are ways that we could work with the agricultural community to capture that for people who are struggling to put food on the table.”

The second part of Knott’s mission is perhaps even bigger — leading the fight to end hunger altogether. “We know that hunger doesn’t exist in isolation — that it typically exists with a whole host of other challenges facing a family,” he points out, adding that Feeding America is developing collaborations with other organizations to help stabilize the lives of the 46 million people they already serve. “But recognizing the magnitude of hunger, we still have a distance to travel,” he says.

Less of a distance to travel is, perhaps, his personal goal of building a model of success he’d be proud to instill in his own children. Knott and his wife, Agnes Taylor Knott (ND ’93), who leads the teen youth ministry at St. Raymond de Penafort in their town of Mount Prospect, Illinois, have four children, ranging in age from 16 down to 10. But while Knott has found that sweet spot where his expertise answers a need that exists in the world around him, he’s not ever going to rest on his laurels. And that, my friend, is one heck of a legacy.