Local Leader Spotlight: Heather Bennett
Director, Partnerships and Philanthropy

Nonprofit Resource Network of Santa Barbara County is proud to announce the launch of our Local Leader Spotlight Series. These spotlights aim to recognize and showcase standout individuals for their commitment to our social sector.

Heather Bennett is the Director of Partnerships and Philanthropy at Direct Relief. Founded in 1948, Direct Relief improves the health and lives of people affected by poverty or emergency situations by mobilizing and providing essential medical resources needed for their care. Since starting at Direct Relief in 2009, Heather has assumed roles of increasing responsibility, and has grown fundraising opportunities with a number of large foundations and companies.

Prior to joining Direct Relief, Heather worked at Health Center Partners of Southern California in San Diego, CA where she raised funds to increase access to affordable and quality healthcare for low-income and uninsured people. Heather has a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology and History from UCLA, graduated from Antioch’s 2017 Women and Leadership Program, and received the 2009 Tribute to Women in Industry (TWIN) Award. She has contributed numerous volunteer hours to nonprofit organizations including the American Diabetes Association, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, San Diego Council on Literacy, and San Diego Refugee Forum. She is currently a board director at Alpha Resource Center of Santa Barbara.

1) What does “leadership” mean to you? What characteristics do you admire in a leader?

Leadership is about supporting each other. I see myself more as a pit-crew to my team – how I can best support their efforts, most effectively empower them, and find more ways for them to shine.


2) Who is a person that has influenced your leadership style?

I can’t narrow it down to just one individual.

First, my parents have influenced who I am – as a leader and as a person. One of the most important things that they instilled in me early on was that I could always be open with them and ask them for help, whatever the circumstances. I’ve tried to carry on that trait professionally, and let my colleagues know we can address any problem together. As my dad says, “No surprises. If I know up front what we’re up against, I’ll always have your back.”

Second, Direct Relief’s President and CEO, Thomas Tighe, has influenced me a great deal. I’ve had the pleasure of working for him for more than 8 years, and admire his commitment to excellence, passion for the mission, and especially his open-door policy. Making sure that your team knows that you are not only accessible to hear their ideas – but to also encourage innovation – is a huge part of leading a successful team.


3) What are you doing to ensure you continue to grow and develop as a leader?

I am fortunate that my job enables continuous opportunities for growth and development.

I recently graduated from Antioch University’s 10-month Women and Leadership Program, where I was able to connect with and learn from three phenomenal instructors, several community leaders, and 15 amazing women in my cohort.

Learning from others and always being open to new ideas is paramount to growth – as a supervisor, as a staffer, and as a human being.


4) How do you lead in a way that allows for creativity and innovation?

Flexibility is key.  A quote we cite around the office is this: “Everybody has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

At Direct Relief, every day is different. We assist people and healthcare facilities every day, but priorities shift when there is an emergency. So, the best laid plans have to have the flexibility to adjust, and strong leadership involves making sure that these adjustments can happen in new, more creative, and more innovate ways.

If we were still operating the same way we did five – or even two – years ago, we’d be toast. We’re constantly changing.


5) Any current projects you are excited about that you would like to share with the NPRN community?

Direct Relief will be moving into its new facility in April 2018. Over the past several years, we’ve been constructing a warehouse and office building that is larger, more secure, and more compliant with increasing regulatory standards from the pharmaceutical industry. (You may have seen the large cement box that’s been erected off Hollister Avenue across from the airport!)

This has been such a huge push. It’s not intended to be a monument to Direct Relief. It’s not. What it will do is increase our capacity to receive and distribute more medicines, and ultimately help more people.


6) What motivates/ inspires you most about your work?

The generosity of people, foundations, and companies. I am inspired every single day by the compassion and desire to support good work. Making a charitable contribution is a completely voluntary gesture, and the number of people who decide to do this is astonishing.


7) What do you most value in others?

Honesty, compassion, and dedication. And I see it every day at Direct Relief.


8) What do you consider your greatest achievement?

That’s a tough one. I guess I’d have to say my resiliency in always being able to find happiness through challenging circumstances.


9) When and where were you happiest?

In July 2014, I was visiting a Direct Relief partner in Phnom Penh, Cambodia. I was walking through a slum village with the organization’s CEO, and he showed me a photo on his cell phone of an emaciated young girl. He then looked up, and pointed to a healthy, happy girl playing hand-clapping games with her friends. He looked at me and said, “That’s because of Direct Relief. The nutritional products that you sent to us saved her life.”

I can’t imagine a happier moment.

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