Journeying and Learning: A Powerful Conversation with Nonprofit Leaders

In mid-March, our Ready to Grow cohort of nonprofit leaders met in-person for the first time since the cohort’s January launch. And it felt so great to gather together in the same room as three-dimensional humans, outside of our small Zoom boxes.

Our friends Seema Shah and Marco Ortega from OC Human Relations deftly facilitated the cohort session, which was all about sharing – specifically “sharing the journey.”

For this session, the Ready to Grow team assembled an all-star panel of diverse nonprofit leaders willing to share their own stories of challenge and success, of leadership and learning. Panelists were: Iosefa Alofaituli, Executive Director and Co-Founder, CIELO; Roberto Herrera, Leadership Development Director, Resilience OC; Georgina Maldonado, Executive Director, CHIOC; Vattana Peong, Executive Director, The Cambodian Family; and Ernesta Wright, Executive Director, The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation.

Below, we share the wisdom of our panelists with you – in the hope that their words and encouragement can inspire your journey as a leader, just as they inspired our cohort participants. Keep reading!

Ernesta Wright:

“Stay within your own mission. Stay aligned to what you know your organization is all about. Also, stay away from meetings that are time killers. In my early years as an executive director, I was all over the place. Now, when I get invited to meetings, I ask myself: ‘Why am I going to this meeting? Who am I going to meet?’ Now, I don’t go to a meeting unless I can walk away with something that would make my organization grow.”

Vattana Peong:

“As a BIPOC nonprofit leader, this space can be so rewarding, yet so challenging at the same time. When I was hired as an executive director, I thought about what I needed to make this agency successful, and how my management team could help me achieve that. More importantly, whenever the work became overwhelming, I had to remind myself and my team to pause, reflect, and rejuvenate, which can be so difficult for BIPOC people like us. The system that’s been set up in Orange County was not made to explicitly support the immigrant community. So we need to make sure that BIPOC community voices are heard at the table and taken seriously. If they don’t have a chair for us, we need to bring our own. And not only that, we need to hold the door open for the people behind us!”

Roberto Herrera:

“I recommend that you take trainings, especially on what it means to be a person of color and how to mentor staff. There’s a big difference in how you communicate with folks [once you become a director]. Sometimes you feel alone as a director. Who do you get guidance from about being in leadership?”

Georgina Maldonado:

“Many years ago, I learned that if you don’t ask, the answer will always be no. As Ernesta said earlier, stay focused on the mission. You can get so carried away with what’s not working, you’ll get lost, and it will affect your sanity. Being a nonprofit executive director can be a lonely place. It’s about opportunity and support.”

Iosefa Alofaituli:

“One of the things I’ve been practicing is balancing humility and confidence. I’ve learned that both things can be right; you can be humble and you can be confident. I helped to launch an organization in 2009. We did amazing work. We partnered with the community to incubate new programs. We partnered with the police department to implement community policing. We partnered with The Rescue Mission and Healthy Smiles to launch a mobile health clinic. I don’t think the funding community really got it. It was hard as hell to raise money around this thing that was wildly successful. And so the organization may have stumbled, but we learned as a result. I think we need to practice, especially with our funding community, acknowledging when things aren’t going right. When your gut tells you something is off, bring it up and discuss it. Largely, we cover it up until it’s too late. We saw some writing on the wall when I was leading this other organization, but I was so stuck on moving up and achieving scale, that we lost the opportunity to generate real impact. As a result of this organization winding down, we actually discovered CIELO.”


“I’m part of a lot of statewide committees, which produce all these wonderful theories and frameworks. I ask, “How is it going to work? How do we implement this framework?” We also spent money on consultants on this framework and I’m looking at it like, “Huh. How is this going to work with my client?” No matter where you are in your journey, always keep in mind the practicality of the work that you do. No one gave you the framework for a COVID pandemic. So invest in frameworks and theories, but don’t let that supersede your day-to-day experience with your clients and the lives they live.”


“Remember that there will be a lot of courageous conversations during the journey. I’ve had difficult conversations with my board, staff, funders. You have to be ready to share these conversations, and talk about what needs to be done to be successful and healthy. Early on, I was the jack of all trades, from writing all grants to processing payroll. And that is okay because that is my learning, my growth. Remember that it’s ok to ask for help; you don’t have to do everything by yourself. You have to figure out the support you need. For me, I seek out my peer EDs who started about the same time, and my board, and my family. You have to be able to think about what courageous conversations you should have with funders. We don’t want a transactional relationship with funders; we want transformational relationships.”


“Toot your own horn. That’s Marketing 101. People need to know what you’re doing. Nobody knew about The G.R.E.E.N. Foundation; that was my failure – because I was so busy doing the work. But toot your own horn to let people know what services you’re offering. Figure out how things work and make them better. And at the end of the day, give yourself grace. Did you spend your day trying to make the world a little easier? At the same time, even if you didn’t, thank God for do-overs; tomorrow is another day.”


“Engaging with funders – it’s really important. In the nonprofit world, it’s go-go-go and solve these problems now. I think you need to engage with the funders and be honest and let them know. For instance, saying, “This form is too long and you’re not paying me to fill out this form. You’re making me sit in on these meetings – you’re not paying me for that.” I still feel shy about asking for a grant extension, but I don’t feel afraid. Your partners need to know what you’re doing and how you’re doing. The other part I wanted to share is – take time to relax. I’m a workaholic and that carries into the night, and then it carries into the morning, and you’re thinking how behind you are. Yes, do your work, but also take time to just relax. It’s so important to your mental health. Have a support system where you have varying opinions. Surround yourself with different people.”


“We should all have a clear vision for where we’re trying to go. A lot of that comes with time, of sitting back and being with yourself. I’ve got lists and I’ve got to get it done every day – but I need to be kind to myself. Make moments to step back and think strategically. The wisdom is there, you just need to give it some air.”

With all our thanks again to Iosefa, Roberto, Georgina, Vattana, and Ernesta for being incredible panelists, teachers, and humans.

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