Julie Bennett Using Leadership Lessons as St. Vincent de Paul CEO

Wednesday, November 16, 2022
Julie Bennett

Julie Bennett ’12 laughed when her priest at Christ the King Catholic Church in McFarland told her she needed to go back to school and earn a master’s degree.

In 2009, 21 years after she graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a BBA in marketing and a Spanish minor, she thought her college days were far behind her. She had three children in their mid-teens, and her thoughts were focused on their college prospects.

Julie Bennett
Julie Bennett

But her priest emphasized it was a requirement to be a director of religious education, something she dearly wanted to do at the church, where she had started working in October 2005 and served as coordinator of religious education.

“I owe an incredible debt of gratitude to Father Steve,” Bennett said. “He pushed me to do something that wasn’t on my list of things to do.”

Looking back now, the push from her priest gave her a new direction that led to her being in the position she is in now: CEO and executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Madison District Council. Bennett is in charge of a $16 million annual budget, 280 employees, seven thrift stores, one of the largest food pantries in Dane County, the state’s only freestanding charitable pharmacy, and other programs that lend a hand to people and families in crisis.

Bennett could have pursued any kind of graduate degree, but she got a tip about Viterbo’s servant leadership program from Julie Wiedmeyer ’10, a member of the faith formation team at another Madison area parish who had started her servant leadership studies. For Bennett, the things she learned through the program were transformative.

“The thing about the servant leadership program that was really important for me is it introduced the idea to me that leadership is a vocation in and of itself," Bennett said. “It's an important skill that can be learned and practiced and grown. And as a leader, it's not only important that you learn and grow yourself but that you help others learn and grow those skills."

Bennett found a new opportunity to put her leadership skills into action even before she completed her servant leadership degree. A church colleague urged her to look into a position as chief operating officer at Care Net Pregnancy Center of Dane County. With the application deadline days away, she declined, but when her colleague told her six weeks later that they were still taking applications, Bennett gave it a shot.

"I feel like that was a God moment in my life, and I feel that way about the servant leadership program, too,” she said. “God put me in the company of some faith-filled women leaders.”

In September 2011, Bennett began a nine-year stint as COO at the Care Net Pregnancy Center, which she described as resource for those facing unintended pregnancies, providing pregnancy and parenting education and ensuring that clients have access to prenatal health care.

The center also runs The Elizabeth House, a maternity home for pregnant women or those who have just given birth where they can learn parenting skills or make an adoption plan and build life skills to help them become more physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy, secure housing and jobs, manage money, and achieve self-sufficiency.

Julie Bennett and Ernie Stetenfeld
Julie Bennett took over as executive director and CEO of the St. Vincent de Paul Madison District from Ernie Stetenfeld, right.

While the Care Net Pregnancy Center was faith-based, Bennett was excited about the opportunity to become associate executive director for the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Madison district because of its affiliation with the Catholic Church.

“To be able to return to my Catholic roots was so attractive to me,” Bennett said.

In October, Bennett took over as CEO and executive director of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Madison district, an organization that was started 98 years ago and provides more than $3 million in charitable assistance annually in Dane County.

The good done by the Society of St. Vincent de Paul in Dane County takes many forms, including providing food, diapers, toiletries, and household essentials to 50,000 people annually through its food pantry. The organization distributes $350,000 in vouchers annually for families in need to purchase clothing, furniture, and household goods, runs the Seton Program offering help to single adult households with minor children, and hosts Vinny’s Lockers, the only long-term goods storage program for people who are homeless in Madison.

Bennett has an army of people helping in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s mission, including the previous district CEO, Ernie Stetenfeld, who officially retired when Bennett took over but has stayed involved with overseeing a major building project.

The commitment displayed by Stetenfeld and others involved in the Society of St. Vincent de Paul is characteristic, in her experience, of people who work in nonprofits in general, Bennett said.

“Nonprofit work calls to people who like working for a mission,” she said. “For the people who stay with nonprofit work in general and this organization in particular, a big, big piece of that is they love the mission. People give their heart and soul if they believe in the mission.”

As Bennett begins her new adventure leading the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s operation, she often thinks of the lessons she learned at Viterbo from Tom Thibodeau and others and how important those lessons were in her work at the Care Net Pregnancy Center and the Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

“I can still hear Tom saying this: ‘People think that servant leadership is the soft stuff.’ It is not soft. It is essential. It is what grows good organizations,” Bennett said. “It requires intentionality. You don’t get there by wanting to. You get there by working at it.”

►Hone your leadership skills through Viterbo's business and servant leadership graduate degree programs and the Center for Professional Learning, which is offering new training sessions on compression planning and leadership for nonprofit organizations.

Julie Bennett Halloween group
Julie Bennett, center, is pictured with some of Madison's St. Vincent de Paul staff dressed for Halloween.