The Nonprofit Atlas



Leadership Lessons Learned From Getting A Nonprofit Out Of Its Comfort Zone

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In 2022, when Felida Villarreal started her role as the president and CEO of the Valley Initiative For Development and Advancement (VIDA), a nonprofit community-based organization that offers workforce development for residents of the Rio Grande Valley in Texas, there were some significant challenges. 

Villarreal had previously served as the nonprofit’s deputy executive director and director of finance. When she became the organization’s president and CEO, she was just 27 years old and suddenly found herself overseeing some staff members who had been there for over 20 years. Additionally, she notes that at that point, VIDA had been in a stable place for the past five years. But she wanted to take the organization out of its comfort zone—and to new heights. 

“One of my goals was growing our impact and outreach,” Villarreal says. “That growth mindset came with a lot of processes that needed to be changed. There were some tensions and hesitations toward change.”

It was up to Villarreal to harmonize the team. 


For Villarreal, it was difficult to get everyone on the same page. She explains that at first, she tried to make sure everyone was happy with every decision. But over time, she adapted her approach. She realized that not everyone would agree with every decision, and that was okay. What mattered more was that team members understood the organization’s goals and developed growth mindsets. 

“I focused on being open with my team and communicating with them about VIDA’s long-term goals so that we could be in alignment,” Villarreal says. “Having those conversations with them about VIDA’s long-term vision was a challenge, but I’m very pleased to say that we have been successful—I think everyone has successfully transitioned into a growth mindset.” 

Villarreal describes the leadership style she’s developed over the years as a “transformative” one. 

“I’ve learned to adapt to the circumstances,” she says. “When you have a plan for growth, new scenarios come into play, so you need to adapt and make decisions accordingly.” 


To that end, Villarreal stresses that communication and transparency are key components of transformative leadership. 

“When you have that dialogue, that communication, with everyone on every level of your team, it’s a lot easier for them to be supportive and receptive to the changes you’re trying to implement,” Villarreal says. 

Communication and transparency shouldn’t be limited to times when there are big initiatives or problems, she emphasizes. 

“As a leader, you can get caught up in the day-to-day, but I think it’s really important to make time and create a good rapport with every one of your employees as well as your board members,” Villarreal says.

She says that a couple of months into her role as VIDA’s president and CEO, some staff members requested that she regularly meet with them. They knew Villarreal was meeting with different departmental directors, and they wanted some time with her as well. So Villarreal organized a weekly staff meeting. Every Monday, the entire team gets together. 

“It’s an opportunity for me to listen to their concerns about problems, tasks, or inefficiencies they’re facing,” Villarreal says. 

Two-way communication, she adds, leaves room for giving and receiving constructive feedback and also helps everyone play a role in shaping the organization’s future. 

“I’ve seen how valuable building relationships is for my team, not only in terms of their performance but also for our organizational culture,” Villarreal says.


Since becoming VIDA’s president and CEO, Villarreal has elevated VIDA’s profile and partnerships, establishing new relationships with organizations in various industries, such as hospitals, construction companies, government entities, institutions of higher education, and other community-based organizations. In doing so, she and her team have created many new opportunities for people in the Rio Grande Valley.

For instance, in 2023, VIDA became “one of 25 organizations nationwide and the only one in Texas to be awarded a U.S. Department of Labor’s $3 Million Nursing Expansion Grant,” according to reporting by the Rio Grande Guardian.

In reflecting on her leadership journey, Villarreal has advice for new leaders. She urges them to be adaptable and prioritize communication and transparency, which she learned was necessary after becoming VIDA’s president and CEO. 

She also believes that every new leader should set aside time to immerse themselves in the history and culture of the organization they’re at the helm of. 

“Whether it’s a company or nonprofit, learn why it was founded, by whom, and for what purpose,” Villarreal says. “Then seek out any gaps or opportunities for improvement the organization has in fulfilling their mission.” 

That knowledge is only one part of the equation, however. Villarreal stresses that it’s crucial for new leaders to take proactive leadership approaches to improve their organizations, making changes where needed. As they make changes, leaders should keep innovation, such as advancements in technology, in mind, according to Villarreal. 

“Ask yourself, ‘How can we enhance our current processes?’ and ‘How can we maximize our resources?’” Villarreal explains. “Look for opportunities to scale up or grow your organization.” 

She says that as new leaders grow their organizations, they should avoid thinking that they or their teams can tackle problems alone. Collaboration with other stakeholders, especially cross-sector collaboration, can be immensely valuable. 

“As a leader, if you surround yourself and your team with value-adding partnerships and collaborative efforts, you can increase your impact tenfold,” she says. 

Along the way, Villarreal recommends that new leaders confide in mentors. Those mentors can be external partners of the organization, board members, policymakers, or other leaders in the community. 

“Mentorship gives you the opportunity to receive feedback and constructive criticism about your leadership style and identify new possibilities,” she says. “Throughout my journey, I’ve had several mentors who have been extremely, extremely valuable to me in terms of providing me with insights and guiding me to build new partnerships and seek new resources.” 

New leaders can benefit from mentorship—and they should pay it forward by helping other people who hope to become leaders one day, Villarreal explains. 

“I consider myself a strong advocate of extending equitable opportunities to all and empowering our most underrepresented demographics, especially those who may be overlooked because of their age, ethnicity, gender, etc.,” Villarreal says. “Look for people who have the drive, ambition, and commitment to advance the mission of your organization.”

Source:  Fast Company


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