St. Anthony CEO Nils Behnke walks the Franciscan talk

By Lidia Wasowicz

From a small seaside German town through the heights of corporate America to a destination that amazed his family, friends and colleagues, Nils Behnke has kept to a faith-directed path on his life’s odyssey.

The native of Kiel, on the Baltic coast, sought God’s guidance before stepping down as senior partner at one of the “big three” management consulting firms — and taking a 80% pay cut — to live out the works of mercy as chief executive officer of St. Anthony Foundation in San Francisco’s Tenderloin district.

Two years later, Behnke has no doubts or regrets about leaving Bain & Company for St. Anthony’s, a move proposed by Franciscan Father John Hardin, former executive director of the nonprofit named after a saint who traded his cloak of nobility and wealth for a mantle of servant to the poor.

“I had never planned to be the CEO of St. Anthony’s,” reflected Behnke, whose association with the privately funded comprehensive service center as donor, volunteer, board member and president spanned a decade when the offer came. “Now, it seems so clear my entire life led to this point.”

His life comprised a childhood standing up for his core beliefs in a predominantly non-Catholic neighborhood and learning generosity from his widowed grandmother who fed the homeless in her small apartment; an adolescence working a variety of low-end jobs and pursuing educational endeavors that earned him a top-of-the-class master’s degree and magna cum laude doctorate in economics from the University of Cologne; an adulthood managing the global giants Bain and McKinsey & Company and the private CellControl Biomedical Laboratories.

“I think most people I know socially and professionally were really surprised about my decision to join St. Anthony’s full time and the depth of my commitment and conviction to our Franciscan Catholic mission,” Behnke recalled.

Even at St. Anthony’s, “it was a bit of a shock,” said board chair Tim Dunn. “It shows his commitment to making San Francisco and the Tenderloin a better place.”

Nils Behnke pictured with Timothy Dunn, board chair of the St. Anthony Foundation.

“He has very strong Franciscan values,” agreed Father Hardin, who lived with foundation founder Franciscan Father Alfred Boeddeker at the nearby St. Boniface Friary for five years. “He’s the real deal.”

Behnke sealed the deal in September 2020 after consulting with Linda, his wife of 26 years; sons Vincent, 19, and Francis, 12; spiritual advisers; and the Almighty.

“My role at St. Anthony’s is part of my faith journey,” said the parishioner at St. Dominic’s Church. “I really couldn’t separate one from the other.”

The go-getter, who while at Bain convinced the prestigious firm to provide a million-dollar strategic plan for the foundation pro bono in 2009, set out on the new course with characteristic energy, empathy and expertise.

He instigated programs, invigorated teammates and inspired innovations.

To put everyone at ease and on equal footing, he gave up his executive office for a small, windowless space and met staff on their turf rather than having them come to him.

Aspiring to be “a servant leader,” the man of zeal who enjoys cooking and cycling joined the “front lines” that provide a safety net of food, clothing, shelter, medical and mental-health care, addiction recovery services, technology access and education, job training and other resources aimed at enabling “a move from the streets to stability.”

Aware that about half of the Tenderloin population goes hungry, he augmented the menu to include breakfast in the dining room, which has served more than 47 million meals — currently averaging 1,500 a day — since Father Boeddeker, then pastor at St. Boniface, started handing out sandwiches from the backdoor of the rectory in 1950.

Striving to preserve human dignity for all, Behnke fused best practices from around the nation into a “companionship model” that reaches out with a lending hand and an understanding ear to help reduce chronic homelessness.

He restructured internal operations to increase clarity, creativity and accountability.

He spearheaded the Nov. 1, 2021, opening of the “hygiene hub” in response to unhoused individuals bathing and washing clothes in drinking fountains set up on the street during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The state-of-the-art bathrooms, washers and dryers along with personal-care products and fresh changes of clothes enable users — 70 percent of whom had lacked such access — to take 20,000 private showers and do 10,000 loads of laundry a year.

With the number of visitors at times reaching 90 a day, expansion plans are on the table, Father Hardin said.

Understanding the need for continuity and consistency, the team didn’t miss a day of accommodating guests during the pandemic, serving them curbside under a tent cover and taking the area’s only free tech lab outdoors.

Such success is par for the course for his father, said Vincent, a graduate of Stuart Hall High School now double majoring in statistics and political science at Rice University in Houston.

“He’s a deeply driven man with a big heart and huge capacity to really push himself and bring out the best in himself and those around him,” he said, adding that he hopes to emulate his dad in putting service to others above self-interest.

Wanting to bring out the best in the foundation, Behnke is exploring a number of promising plans.

One calls for expanding offerings by partnering with other nonprofits, such as with the San Francisco Food Bank to open a pantry.

Another recommends closing to vehicular traffic a block in the vicinity of the foundation on Golden Gate Avenue — listed among the 13% of city streets that account for 75% of serious or fatal collisions with cyclists and pedestrians.

Yet another suggests spreading the ministry and mission through increased youth involvement.

To that end, St. Anthony’s has established the Young Professionals Council, boasting some 100 members in their 20s and 30s working in technology, finance and related fields.

“We are a Franciscan Catholic organization which informs everything that we do and how we do it,” Behnke said. “Articulating it to a new generation in San Francisco and attracting young people to the Franciscan movement is key.”

He looks forward to handing the reins over to these future leaders.

“Despite everything that’s going on in the Tenderloin, and it’s not good, let me be clear, it’s a joyful ministry,” he added. “The more you work, the more you understand the miracle happening here.”

Lidia Wasowicz is an award-winning journalist, former West Coast science editor and senior science writer for United Press International. She has written for Catholic San Francisco since 2011.