Thomas Vozzo On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

Find joy in your work and lead others to joy as well. It’s tremendously hard on the team of people who work with clients who are in a state of trauma and are transmitting their pain. I’ve found that to do this work, our team has a tremendous capacity to be in kinship with folks […]

Thrive invites voices from many spheres to share their perspectives on our Community platform. Community stories are not commissioned by our editorial team, and opinions expressed by Community contributors do not reflect the opinions of Thrive or its employees. More information on our Community guidelines is available here.

Find joy in your work and lead others to joy as well. It’s tremendously hard on the team of people who work with clients who are in a state of trauma and are transmitting their pain. I’ve found that to do this work, our team has a tremendous capacity to be in kinship with folks whose lives are spinning out of control. To do this work and stay balanced, one must find joy in our fellow human beings, and once discovered a calming perspective is achieved. Leading your team to discover this joy is a must.


For someone who wants to set aside money to establish a Philanthropic Foundation or Fund, what does it take to make sure your resources are being impactful and truly effective? In this interview series, called “How To Create Philanthropy That Leaves a Lasting Legacy” we are visiting with founders of Philanthropic Foundations, Charitable Organizations, and Non Profit Organizations, to talk about the steps they took to create sustainable success.

As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Thomas Vozzo.

Thomas Vozzo is CEO of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and reentry program in the world. In combination with workforce development and job training in the social enterprise businesses, Homeboy Industries provides healing and alternatives to gang life, while creating more inclusive, safer and healthier communities. In his book, The Homeboy Way: A Radical Approach to Business and Life, he gives readers practical ways to address some of our most vexing social issues and provides a new path for personal and business leadership.


Thank you for making time to visit with us about a ‘top of mind’ topic. Our readers would like to get to know you a bit better. Can you please tell us about one or two life experiences that most shaped who you are today?

During the depth of the 2008 “Great Recession,” I was leading a 1.5+ billion dollars business and the chairman of the overall corporation made it clear to me that the corporation needed to live up to our commitments to the investors and I needed to do a third round of layoffs. I knew for this to happen, I would be cutting more than the “fat” out of the organization, but rather I would be cutting long tenured employees who dedicated their life to doing well by the company. I also knew that by making these cuts while “making the numbers” was not going to change the long-term prospects of the business, since we were still very profitable. This breaking of our commitment to employees didn’t sit well with me — I needed to find a better way to do business. I knew deep down that my values didn’t exactly square with the situation and the existing paradigm of corporate America. I needed to change my long-term plan, and the only way to do it was to take charge of my destiny. I knew that with the right business model, I could achieve this vision. I could perform in the marketplace and do right by all the employees.

Then came my experience of being at Homeboy Industries, where I developed remarkable friendships and relationships with former gang members. I’ve experienced more sorrow and more joy over these past few years than in my whole life put together. Along the way, almost by providence, I was able to see how business can be done with a different set of priorities so that everyone benefits — the owners, the management and those who have never been able to sustain a job and now do. I learned how to help the “unemployable” become employable. I’ve participated in the development of business models that provide not just economic impact but social impact. Doing business the Homeboy Way is the direction we need to take our collective efforts and is a road map to reorganize the capital markets.

You are a successful leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? We would love to hear a few stories or examples.

First would be the ability to listen in order to better understand the context to any situation and more importantly to put yourself in the shoes of others. Secondly, to work smartly: Either through my own abilities or to engage some really smart people, the better plan nearly always succeeds. Lastly, to work hard. These are three traits that are easy to emulate and so if you stay true to them, the rest of the organization will follow

What’s the most interesting discovery you’ve made since you started leading your organization?

In order to truly help people, especially the people who are demonized and forgotten by our society, it’s not about instructing them on what to do or trying to change behaviors by making more rules, it’s about being compassionate and standing in kinship with them — forming a mutual relationship.

Can you please tell our readers more about how you or your organization intends to make a significant social impact?

Several years ago, we formalized our intentions around the work we do today and in the future. We call it our year 2030 Ambitions. It’s about stating and declaring what we stand for and what we aspire to be in the world: “By our daily work and commitment to the healing of our clients in a trusting, loving community, we will demonstrate to the world a new way forward. We will change the way the world views, judges and treats the formerly incarcerated and gang involved — who are the most marginalized and demonized.”

Our current goals include these specific and ambitious breakthroughs:

  1. Stand: Stand with the demonized so the demonizing will stop.
  2. Heal: Foster foundational healing so no one re-offends.
  3. Invest: Invest in their future.

Stand, heal and invest. This is what our organization has been doing for over thirty years. Each year over 10,000 former gang members from across Los Angeles come through Homeboy Industries’ doors in an effort to make positive change. They are welcomed into a community of mutual kinship, love, and a wide variety of services ranging from tattoo removal to anger management and parenting classes.

The overarching goal is to see individuals heal from trauma, allowing them to contribute fully to their family and community. The five key outcomes Homeboy strives for as an organization are:

  1. Reduce recidivism
  2. Reduce substance abuse
  3. Improve social connectedness
  4. Improve housing safety and stability
  5. Reunify families

Homeboy Industries has become a blueprint for over 250 organizations and social enterprises around the world, from Alabama and Idaho, to Guatemala and Scotland. The Global Homeboy Network is a group of like-minded organizations committed to impacting the lives of those in their communities.

What makes you feel passionate about this cause more than any other?

No one should be defined by the worst thing they have ever done, and yet that is how society treats so many. Without giving people real second chances, they will never be able to transform their lives and thus poverty and homelessness endures. How can we, as such a prosperous society, have such a high level of poverty, homelessness and food insecurity? While there may be big solutions yet to come, to make a difference today it must start one person at a time helping another person. When we each take the responsibility to improve our society, we can make a difference.

As a businessperson, I also know that the business community can make a difference. There is indeed a dignity of work. People deserve to have a good job; a quality job and our capitalist system has the resources to make that happen. It just takes action and persistence.

Without naming names, could you share a story about an individual who benefitted from your initiatives?

I remember meeting María just as she was beginning her time at Homeboy. She was recently released from prison and would not look straight at you. She was a hard-core gang member, tough and stern with her words, anger lurking just below the surface. Yet she had the courage to ask for help, and help is what we gave her. During her time with Homeboy, we all got to witness her open up, heal her wounds, redirect her anger, and prove more than capable of doing a lot of different jobs. By the end of her time with us, her wide smiles were infectious; she was so friendly to so many. María left Homeboy to become a solar panel installer and now gets paid quite well.

Or Moisés, an older guy who had a lifetime of addictions and run-ins with the law. He was in and out of our program a few times because he couldn’t stay clean, but he eventually got sober and came back into our program. His healing led to an aspiration to enroll in truck driving school, so we helped him with that. He now has a job driving for a living. There are hundreds and hundreds of these stories of transformation, all truly amazing and awe inspiring.

We all want to help and to live a life of purpose. What are three actions anyone could take to help address the root cause of the problem you’re trying to solve?

To truly help the poor and to help ourselves, we must not be so rule-bound. We must act. We need to bust up the system, swim upstream, and avoid herd mentality. We need to take a step back and truly understand our own role in society.

There are two big assumptions that need to be challenged, first, that we who go about our everyday life in our own little bubble think it’s none of our responsibility to get involved with the way society treats its poor. Or that because we are distracted by our own stressors, we think it’s someone else’s responsibility to be accountable to our fellow human beings. I want to shout from the rooftops that it’s all our responsibility and it’s really not that hard to do our part. The second big assumption is that society at large has the answers and already has the best available solutions in place to fix the systems of inequity. This is far from true, and to make a real difference, we need to break business norms, governmental norms, and societal norms.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 Things You Need To Create A Successful & Effective Nonprofit That Leaves A Lasting Legacy?” Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Have a mission that is easily understood and lives past the founder. While the mission of Homeboy — to help previously incarcerated former gang members to change their lives — is well known by everyone, it’s in the everyday actions that it gets reinforced. As an example, our Homeboy clients have been told “no” all their lives, so what we’ve learned from our founder is that it’s important that when a client walks through our doors for the first time looking for help, we need to say “yes.” We need to be affirmative and provide some type of support. This very tangible action is the embodiment of the mission that is easily understood by everyone.
  2. Develop leadership talent from within and in particular, with those with lived experience. As an organization whose mission it is to help people, it’s vitally important that the management team be a good blend of those with lived experience and those with outside “professional” skill sets. No one knows better the plight of the clients than the ones who have walked in their shoes. Cultivation of those leaders is a must.
  3. Management teams need to have the same level of diversity as the people you serve. This needs to be more than an aspiration, it needs to be an effort that is currently worked on. The best run organizations are ones with high employee morale, and that happens when you have diversity that matches the clients you serve. Otherwise, it will always be a cause of friction and disappointment among your team.
  4. Financial stability is a must, but there’s no need to have a very large rainy-day fund when “it rains everyday” in helping people. An organization needs to be financially stable so that it can serve clients and employees over the long term. However, in the world of being a human services organization, there is so much need out there — need for food, shelter, clothing. Having a large financial reserve or an endowment makes sense to the governing board, but it doesn’t make as much sense when you are turning people away from your organization who desperately need help, just to preserve those reserves. Money does make a difference in the lives of the very poor.
  5. Find joy in your work and lead others to joy as well. It’s tremendously hard on the team of people who work with clients who are in a state of trauma and are transmitting their pain. I’ve found that to do this work, our team has a tremendous capacity to be in kinship with folks whose lives are spinning out of control. To do this work and stay balanced, one must find joy in our fellow human beings, and once discovered a calming perspective is achieved. Leading your team to discover this joy is a must.

How has the pandemic changed your definition of success?

What I have learned coming to Homeboy is something that all of us now better appreciate during this pandemic — that it’s about helping and being in relationship with the person in front of you today. It’s not about how many people you help or what you will do tomorrow, it’s about today and the person who is in crisis right now and how you can help.

The pandemic has shined a bright light on the many plights of the poor — not enough financial resources, homelessness, access to good healthcare and food insecurity. For over 30 years, Homeboy has been working with people who face these issues and have worked to make a difference in their lives. With the pandemic, society at large now recognizes these issues and is starting to change the way they are viewed and resources provided.

How do you get inspired after an inevitable setback?

I’m inspired by the men and women of Homeboy whose lives are far worse than mine, even after a huge setback. Their attitude and genuine kindness in face of such adversity keeps me grounded and focused not on my problems but how to keep pushing forward to help in the best way possible.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non-profit? He, she, or they might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

If you are an elected official, leader of a business or a policy maker, my message is that we need to change the current approach. There is a better way and all it takes is the willingness for action. Action to hire that felon, action to provide government assistance without all the strings attached, the will to admit past policies don’t work.

You’re doing important work. How can our readers follow your progress online?

Follow Homeboy Industries at https://homeboyindustries.org/.

Thank you for a meaningful conversation. We wish you continued success with your mission.

You might also like...

Community//

Lisa Swift-Young On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
Community//

Dr Froswa Booker-Drew On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
Community//

Jay Sobhraj On How To Leave a Lasting Legacy With a Successful & Effective Nonprofit Organization

by Karen Mangia
We use cookies on our site to give you the best experience possible. By continuing to browse the site, you agree to this use. For more information on how we use cookies, see our Privacy Policy.