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Compassion With A Plan

Lena Wilson, CEO, Vista Del Mar
Excellence Winner, Impact Award
Vistage member since 2021
Vista Del Mar’s Lena Wilson Helps The Underserved With Both Care And Rigor

Lena Wilson, J.D., grew up in a home filled with children her parents fostered. Children who experienced violence. Children born of hard luck. Children who needed help.

The situation would have tugged at anyone’s heart — compassion in that environment is easy — and it led Wilson to a career in social work. But early on, Wilson realized that making a difference would require more than love. It would require a plan.

“In college, I volunteered at a group home, and I thought, ‘How do we stop this?’” she says. “I decided to go upstream and become a case manager. But that wasn’t far enough. Then I worked with the medically fragile unit of the state’s foster care program, dealing with newborn addiction, shaken baby syndrome, domestic violence and babies born with severe birth defects. But that wasn’t far enough.”

Eventually, Wilson became a leader of a Michigan-based statewide health and human services organization, making tremendous inroads in adoptions and even affecting policy change to benefit pregnant and parenting teens. Still, she felt she wasn’t going far enough.

While Wilson stretched and strived, Vista Del Mar in Los Angeles sought a new leader. For a century, the 500-person nonprofit served the most vulnerable populations in Los Angeles County. However, the organization lacked fiscal discipline and an innovative vision. They needed Wilson. And Wilson had a plan.

In Wilson’s capable hands, Vista Del Mar expanded its services, scope and financial runway. She diversified funding sources and trained the organization’s long-time leaders to balance their budgets and identify KPIs, resulting in more than $18 million in new funding streams.

“At Vista, I have an opportunity to be inside an organization, create change, help more people and be highly involved in advocacy and policy-making,” says Wilson, who earned her J.D. from the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

She spearheaded five new programs that secured $8 million to aid unaccompanied minors, $3.2 million in behavioral health infrastructure, $2 million in grants for mobile crisis outreach teams, $1 million to help commercially exploited youth and $4 million for home visitation post-release services for unaccompanied minors in the Western region of the United States — Vista’s first national program.

Wilson achieved these changes not by cleaning house but by training up — starting with herself. Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles in 2019, she joined Michal Clements’  Vistage group where she is the only nonprofit CEO.

“People say health and human services isn’t a business, but the same sound business practices necessary in for-profit are critical in nonprofits,” Wilson says. “My group has a lot of small businesses, and I love hearing the different strategies and workshops that I can flip around and make useful in our organization.”

“THE SAME SOUND BUSINESS PRACTICES NECESSARY IN FOR-PROFIT ARE CRITICAL IN NONPROFITS.”

In turn, Wilson’s creative energy and ability to apply learnings from everywhere inspire her group.

“Within our Vistage group, Lena is highly valued for her creativity and thoughtful questioning approach,” Clements wrote when nominating Wilson for the 2023 Vistage Impact Award. “Lena can be counted on to go ‘above and beyond.’”

Today, lawmakers seek Wilson’s expertise and award Vista Del Mar meaningful federal contracts to help her continue building, growing and expanding.

“Our North Star is to be embedded in the community and ensure everyone has equitable access to quality services,” she says. “My goal is that there will be no wrong door at Vista. No matter what aspect of care you need, we will have it or we will coordinate it.”

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