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Lifetime Achievement Award: Ralph Middlecamp’s lifetime of poverty fighting

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Asked why poverty remains so widespread and challenging to fight, Ralph Middlecamp notes there are a broad spectrum of causes, and generational poverty has a different set of solutions than situational poverty. If poverty-fighting success is to be found, understanding the different kinds of poverty is essential.

“We erroneously tend to lump many types of poverty together under one heading,” explains the now retired CEO and executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s District Council of Madison. “There are different answers for different kinds of poverty.”

Finding answers has been his life’s work, which is why he was selected as the Lifetime Achievement winner in IB’s annual Executive of the Year Awards program. Whether it’s building a loyal workforce culture in which everyone understands the mission, combining programs for self-sufficiency with safety-net services, developing new service offerings such as Wisconsin’s first charitable pharmacy, or a continuing willingness to serve with his current, post-retirement gig as the Society’s national president, Middlecamp has been fighting poverty on multiple fronts.

One of the answers is empowering others to get involved. At the heart of his rewarding work are the one-on-one meetings with people who suffer in poverty, but his ability to engage the community in this fight has been absolutely critical. Middlecamp had been with St. Vincent de Paul-Madison for 30 years, the last 18 as executive director; in his last full year as the local CEO, total donations exceeded $2.5 million, more than doubling the amount of donations at the start of his tenure.

Until his July 31, 2017 retirement, the Society had consistently grown this local charity serving basic needs of the community’s poorest and most vulnerable members. Middlecamp led the way in developing a social-enterprise business featuring the Society’s Dane County thrift stores, which underwrite much of the organization’s mission. “St. Vinny’s” thrift stores annually provide $500,000 or more in basic goods vouchered to people in need directly from store inventory, including $317,000 in clothing alone during fiscal 2016 to go along with furniture, bedding, housewares, and other basics given to local low-income households.

The nonprofit charitable organization not only helps poverty-stricken people beat the odds, it’s beaten a few itself. Exhibit A is the Help Build Hope campaign, which was launched in 2007 just as the country was hit with a wicked recession. Another factor that could have worked against the campaign was that in more than 75 years, the Society never conducted a capital campaign, but it had outgrown its space on Williamson Street and developed a strategic plan to build a new service center.

With a little help from its friends, the Society crossed the finish line. “We had a strong start to the campaign, but then the recession hit,” Middlecamp recounted. “Fortunately, I was working with some tremendous community leaders, most notably Bob Koch, Tim Reilley, and Jeff Hausmann, who assured me that we would finish this campaign. The campaign did get stuck for a time, but the leadership at Madison Community Foundation offered us a challenge grant if we could find the additional contributions needed. That gave us new momentum, and we met our $4 million goal.”

Help Build Hope was not only a successful campaign, it was a purposeful one, as well. One of the things contained in the new food pantry and service center, which is now named for Middlecamp, is a charitable pharmacy. If that sounds innovative in an era of high-priced pharmaceuticals, he notes the model was established elsewhere, but it still has to work locally.

“There are pharmacies around the country operated by St. Vincent de Paul that provided us with some good models,” Middlecamp notes. “We were helping people with tens of thousands of dollars of aid annually through vouchers for existing pharmacies, but there came a point where it was more cost effective to operate our own charity pharmacy, using the advice we got from the operations in other parts of the country and relying in large part on donated medication inventory.”

Once again, the Society got by with a little help from its friends. “The UW–Madison School of Pharmacy and the [Oscar] Rennebohm Foundation gave us important support as we initiated that project,” Middlecamp notes. “In the last year, the value of the prescriptions we provided for free exceeded $1 million, providing crucial, health-sustaining medicine to hundreds of Dane County residents who had no health insurance.”  

There was one hitch that Middlecamp was unable to resolve to his satisfaction. He tried to talk the Society’s board leadership out of naming the facility after him because he was, in his own words, just a small part of a great team, but in this case Middlecamp’s persuasive powers failed him. “It was one of the few times our board did not take my advice,” he laments, “and so I followed my wife’s advice and just said, ‘Thank you, I am honored.’” 


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