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

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.’” 

(Continued)

 

Now that he’s moved on to the national organization — he’s in the middle of his second year of a six-year term as president and chairman of the Board of the National Council of the Society of St Vincent de Paul — he hopes to leverage a career’s worth of relationships. St. Vincent de Paul’s National Council has about 100,000 volunteers providing millions of dollars of help to people in need through a network of local councils. Some of those councils, such as the one in Madison, have strong programs to meet the many of the needs of people living in poverty. 

In other areas, however, the organization is struggling to maintain membership and provide services, so Middlecamp is relying on relationships developed over 35 years to put a leadership team together to strengthen the Society’s network of charities. The team spent the first year developing a strategic plan after spending time listening to the Society’s membership and stakeholders. 

“We need to share best practices from the areas where we’re strongest and recruit a membership that is younger and more diverse to meet the changing demographics of our country,” Middlecamp explains. “I am committed to continuing to advance the organization’s efforts to be more than a provider of safety-net services. We have an increased focus on keeping people out of poverty through mentoring programs and advocacy for policy changes. There are impressive success stories around the country that we can build on.”

Middlecamp notes the Society is an international organization with members in 154 countries working to provide aid to suffering people in their communities. As the National Council president, he feels privileged to be the representative of the U.S on international committees, and the opportunity to see a broader picture of poverty in the world has been very meaningful to him. “I also believe that it is important for United States Council to provide support and encouragement for the men and women who are putting their faith into action in some of the poorest regions of the world,” he states.

As for tackling poverty closer to home, Middlecamp feels that Madison is uniquely positioned. “The community,” he notes, “is the shareholder of an organization like ours,” which is why he’s blessed to have landed in a good place — the local nonprofit industry. “In Madison, we have big-city problems, but we still feel that we can do something constructive about them.”

Testimony to St. Vincent de Paul

The Lifetime Achievement honor means a great deal to Middlecamp, primarily because it’s also a recognition of the organization’s 250 employees and hundreds of volunteers. “I have seen the impressive list of previous recipients and it includes so many people I admire that I am humbled to think they considered me for this honor,” Middlecamp says. “I’d like to think that it’s a testament to the value St. Vincent de Paul has provided the community through the organization we were able to build over the last few decades.”

Middlecamp and seven other Executive of the Year winners will be honored at an awards reception on Tuesday, Feb. 19, at the Overture Center for the Arts. For more details about the Executive of the Year event and to purchase tickets, visit IBMadison.com/ExecutiveOfTheYear.

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