Driving Positive Social Change through Compassionate Leadership with Alyssia Palacios-Woods

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 “It’s not sales; it’s about trying. Fundraising is about finding the right fit and passion for the right donor at the right time.”  
Alyssia Palacios-Woods

Episode #181


In this episode of What the Fundraising Podcast…

Let us delve deep into the transformative power of compassionate and strategic leadership in driving positive social change!

In this episode, we explore the dynamic synergy between empathy and authenticity, uncovering their pivotal role in driving substantial impact within non-profit organizations and communities. Today, we converse with Alyssia Palacios-Woods, the Executive Director at Capital IDEA, who sheds light on harnessing these twin forces for meaningful change.

Alyssia boasts over ten years of experience fostering workforce development initiatives in Central Texas, embodying the roles of a community builder and non-profit leader. With a Certified Fund Raising Executive (CFRE) designation, she remains steadfast in adhering to the highest standards of non-profit operations and fundraising. Notably, before her tenure at Capital IDEA, she led the Austin Young Chamber as its President & CEO, advocating for regional cooperation, fostering entrepreneurship, nurturing talent, and promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion. Alyssia’s dedication extends to her involvement in various initiatives, including the Opening Central Texas for Business Task Force during COVID-19 recovery, the Austin Homelessness Task Force, and the National YP Week Advisory Council. Also, her contributions have not gone unnoticed, as evidenced by her nomination for the Austin Business Journal Profiles in Power in 2019 and her recognition as a finalist for Austin Under 40 in 2023.

During today’s conversation, Alyssia shares her journey of leading a 25-year-old non-profit organization through strategic planning, community engagement, and empathetic leadership. Also, she delves into the organization’s mission of lifting working adults out of poverty through education and the challenges and triumphs encountered along the way. Moreover, Alyssia emphasizes the importance of building authentic relationships with donors, stakeholders, and the community. She shares valuable insights on sustaining long-term funding, adapting to change, and embracing a culture of empathy within the organization.

Reflecting on her leadership style, Alyssia highlights the significance of leading with empathy and understanding the diverse needs of her team and community members. Also, she discusses the impact of the pandemic on non-profit operations and the strategies implemented to navigate uncertain times while remaining true to the organization’s mission.



Alyssia Palacios-Woods


  • This week’s episode is sponsored by NeonOneNeonOne is revolutionizing the way nonprofits connect with their communities. Their platform isn’t just about technology; it’s about crafting unforgettable generosity experiences. Learn more about how they’re empowering nonprofits like yours at neonone.com/mallory

  • If you haven’t already, please visit our new What the Fundraising community forum. Check it out and join the conversation at this link.
  • If you’re looking to raise more from the right funders, then you’ll want to check out my Power Partners Formula, a step-by-step approach to identifying the optimal partners for your organization. This free masterclass offers a great starting point

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Get to know Alyssia Palacios-Woods:

Caitlin Wion is a proactive and collaborative nonprofit professional who strives to find the story in numbers that others may overlook. With a 10-year history of working in nonprofits, Caitlin’s career has always involved an appreciation for record keeping. As the Data Manager for Alzheimer’s San Diego, Caitlin employs her talent for turning a sheet of metrics into informed action for the organization. She collaborates with every department to make sure they have the information they need to make decisions that impact clients, donors, and the organization. In managing the database, she is tasked with segmentation, donor stewardship, tracking the organization’s free programs, gift entry and management, and reporting. Caitlin’s passion for data hygiene and user experience enriches the data storytelling available to the organization.


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Episode Transcript


Alyssia Palacios-Woods: [00:00:00] We put a lot of resources into our digital marketing and our outreach efforts. So digital marketing being like a first touch point. Okay, this is how people find us. Where are we pointing them to? Where can they find a person? And then our kind of boots on the ground outreach really focused on letting them talk to a person, you know, and to kind of build some trust within the community, finding spaces where people are already at.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: For kind of the hard to reach populations that we’re supporting. We do only work with low income central Texans as a access point into our program.

Mallory Erickson: Hey, my name is Mallory and I’m obsessed with helping leaders in the nonprofit space, raise money and run their organizations differently. What the fundraising is a space for real and raw conversations to both challenge and inspire you. Not too long ago, I was in your shoes, uncomfortable with fundraising and unsure of my place in this sector.

Mallory Erickson: It wasn’t until I started to listen to other experts outside of the fundraising space that I was able to shift my mindset and [00:01:00] ultimately shift the way I show up as a leader. This podcast is my way of blending professional and personal development. So we, as a collective inside the nonprofit sector can feel good about the work we are doing.

Mallory Erickson: Join me every week as I interview some of the brightest minds in the personal and professional development space to help you fundamentally change the way you lead and fundraise. I hope you enjoy this episode. So let’s dive in. Welcome everybody. I am really excited to be here today with Alicia Palacios Woods.

Mallory Erickson: Welcome to What the Fundraising. Thank you. Excited to be here, Mallory. Let’s start with you just telling everybody a little bit about you and your work, and then we’ll dive into the juicy stuff. 

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Sure thing. So, Alicia Palacios Woods, and I am the Executive Director of Capital Idea, which is a non profit in Austin, Texas, covering the Central Texas area, serving local Central Texans.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: I came into fundraising, like most people, very non traditional path, probably, didn’t go to school [00:02:00] for it. Uh, my background’s actually in design and advertising. And then a couple of years into that work decided, you know, I really think I have more to offer. I really have this value and passion for giving back.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so I decided to go into a nonprofit work and got hired as a director of development. Um, and was able to do that work for a good steady time and then move into kind of more management positions within nonprofits. Capital Idea is a wonderful nonprofit, like I said, in Austin, Texas, and our mission is to lift working adults out of property and into living wage careers through education.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so, specifically long term education, associate degrees, you pay 100 percent tuition fees and books. And we provide wraparound services like transportation, child care, emergency assistance, and a career navigator who is, I think, an instrumental person and resource for our students as they’re working through kind of the journey of academia.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: We definitely find out that a lot of our students. don’t understand the systems, you know, applying for college, applying for financial aid, understanding who to go to for advice, support, [00:03:00] resources when they need it. And so we’re kind of that bridge, helping these students along the way, paying for them and making sure that they get there.

Mallory Erickson: I love sort of the depth of which your organization like addresses the issues that it aims to address. And I’m curious, like what, as you think about, you know, building healthy donor relationships around an organization that. In many ways, sort of goes a mile deep. I’m curious, like, how that relates to, sort of, how you think about, sort of, who are the right donors for you and what does it look like to create, sort of, real authentic relationships with them, um, that sustains them over the long haul and, and really engages them in multiple students journeys over the years.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Yeah, it’s a really good question. Um, you know, our students are with us. Associate’s degree takes two years for a traditional student, but for our students, it takes three, three and a half. Three is our average time. So, you know, we’re with them along in their journey for a while, and so with that, you need sustained funding, and we’re paying for college, right, and life.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: [00:04:00] So, you know, there’s a lot of support that comes with that. Our average cost is about 5, per student per year. And so we’re really, um, you’re right, looking for those long term funders to be able to help sustain, um, the work of our organization. Um, so with that, you know, we are 60 percent public funding and 40 percent private.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: We, of course, you know, like any non profit, we’ll take money, come on, good money, we want it. But really, we’re looking at those dollars that, Um, and those investments from funders who really look at our program as intergenerational change. Um, so not only for the student that we’re helping and the adult that we’re helping, our average age is about 27 years old for our student, but also that we’re creating cycles of change.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so, you know, the money you invest now has a big ROI. For our community and for the family down the road. And so in building those relationships, it’s, we do have a lot of long term sustained funders who believe in our program. And I think like any nonprofit, you know, it’s, it’s not just that you’re [00:05:00] graduating people and placing them into great jobs.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: It’s the metrics behind that and the data that kind of proves that it’s, It’s a program that is worth supporting and that is doing what it says it’s doing. So the data support behind it, there’s studies that we’ve done with the Ray Marshall Center at the University of Texas that kind of show and track ROI.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so those are some of the stories that we share with our funders and we’re having conversations with them so that it’s not just us saying it, but that it’s a proven method and that there’s data to back it up. 

Mallory Erickson: You know, when someone from your team was reaching out about you joining me on the show, one of the things that they mentioned was.

Mallory Erickson: That because of the work or the type of work that you do, some people’s initial like reaction is that it’s a scam and that some of the work that you have to do is like really in sort of reinforcing the legitimacy of the work that you’re doing in what you were just saying, that sort of. You know, lent itself to me thinking about that in sort of like how you’re creating these like third party or opportunities for kind of third party testimonials around the importance of your work, [00:06:00] but I’m wondering, I have a feeling we’ve never talked about this on the show before, and I have a feeling that you’re not alone.

Mallory Erickson: In that experience, and there might be other nonprofits listening to this that, you know, have also perhaps experienced questioning like that in the past. And so I’m just curious if you have any suggestions related to that for perhaps a nonprofit that doesn’t have the same. Maybe testimonial track record, third party verification that you do.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Right. I think trust based philanthropy definitely comes through on that. And you’re right. That is one of the pieces when people hear like, it’s too good to be true. Like what’s the catch. And so it’s, those are some of the things we combat. We put a lot of resources into our digital marketing and our outreach efforts.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: So digital marketing being like a first touch point. Okay, this is how people find us. Where are we pointing them to? Where can they find a person? And then our kind of boots on the ground outreach. really focused on letting them talk to a person, you know, and kind of build some trust within the community, finding spaces where people are already at for kind of the [00:07:00] hard to reach populations that we’re supporting.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: We do only work with low income central Texans as an access point into our program. And so really kind of, uh, using that, those person to person. Contact to get students in and then also word of mouth. So, you know, in nonprofit work, you know, building up collaborations and partnerships are so important.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so a lot of times it’s not just us sharing the message. It’s also our partners at the community college and it’s our nonprofit partners who refer to us. And so it’s a lot of different people. It’s faculty and staff who are saying and sharing about our program. It’s people who have been through it. I think one of the big things about Capital Idea is our kind of, we call it an alumni network, but it’s basically everybody who’s graduated from our program.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And one of the things we talk to them about when they’re coming in is, you know, after you graduate down the road, what’s your way to give back? You know, your community is investing in you. We believe in you and you’re going to be successful. How are you going to give back? What are some things you’re passionate about?

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And one of those things is being able to just share, you know, at any point in their time about Capital Idea and the fact that we’re, A [00:08:00] resource in the community and that they’ve gone through the program and been successful. And so that’s one of the number one ways people find out about us. And for those nonprofits, you know, who, who don’t have like the data, like the data and the story behind it.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: I think some of those proven like the success stories of their clients, students, participants, alumni, whatever, whoever they are, just those stories, those personal testimonials about how a program has affected their life. Is one of the most important stories you can tell, you know, mentioned we have 60 percent public funders.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And one of the things that we make sure we do is have them come and speak city council or commissioners court or at the state legislature and come and share their story because I can say their story all day, but it’s way more impactful and much more important for it to come from them as the person who benefited.

Mallory Erickson: Okay. I love, I love all that. And I think that’s such, that’s such good advice for folks. I’m curious, like, You know, you’re thinking about the long term sustainability of this organization, you know, for the next 25 years, and [00:09:00] you’ve been stabilizing it as, you know, as the leader now, and, you know, really, I think, trying to uphold the legacy of its work while thinking about what’s next.

Mallory Erickson: What’s it like to hold that balance? I also think there are a lot of folks who are listening to this who, you know, perhaps are the first executive director after a founder or after a big transition that the organization has been through and they both want to honor the legacy that has come before them and where they’re at and also really step into and embrace their leadership and vision for what comes next.

Mallory Erickson: So talk to us a little bit about how you navigate. That piece of the puzzle, 

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: that’s a really important question. And so, you know, just to clarify for, for the people who are listening, it’s a 25 year organization. I stepped in at year 23, our founding executive director retired at that time. And so, yeah, I came in as like executive director number two for a very established nonprofit, very successful, established and financially healthy [00:10:00] nonprofit.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Fortunately, I think for me, I was on the board of directors before I came on board. And so this was something that I was already passionate about, even in my prior role. Uh, leading a chamber of commerce here in Austin, Texas. And so, you know, I had built up some of the relationships and new kind of some of the foundational pieces about the organization.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: I think as a new executive director, you always kind of want to know what, what organization you’re stepping into. Is it financially healthy? Is it going to be a struggle? You know, what does fundraising look like? Is there a pipeline? Those are some of the pieces definitely to look at and ask yourself as you’re coming in and, you know, You know, if they don’t offer up the information, ask for it.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Definitely, you know, request to see financials. You can do that. You can look up, you can look up form nine nineties and all those things on, um, on a guide stars. So, you know, do all those things, do that homework to look into it. But I came into a wonderfully established and healthy organization. And, and you’re right, you know, coming in, it wasn’t just taking over for founding executive director.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: He’d been here for 23 years, but also several staff members who had been here for that long and now celebrating 25 year anniversaries. So we have a 30 [00:11:00] person staff and have about six staff members who are celebrating 25 year anniversaries, uh, this year alongside organization. And so great longevity, great history, great retention, great, you know, knowledge of the past that’s built here.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so I think about, you know, how do you embrace that and build upon it? It was time to do some strategic planning when I came on board, our planet ended. So to me, that was a great opportunity to kind of, you know, people always ask me like, what’s your vision, what’s your, and I always think about, you know, The organization as you know, what’s our vision?

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Because we’re a community serving organization, and it’s more than just one person who should make those decisions. What a shared leadership look like. And so you bring it in the board, bring in the staff, bring in the stakeholders, bring in the students, alumni, who, you know, the people who you’re serving, what do all those viewpoints look like?

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And how do you shape a plan that is reflective of that? And supports the community plan and then it’s like, okay, here we go. We got our, we got our plan when it’s something we built together. And so for me, it was kind of good to have that process pretty early on in my 10 years so that we can kind of, you know, see, okay, how are we steering the ship and [00:12:00] what comes next and part of that, part of that process and in coming out and having our plan was to, Really talk about how we, like what you said, like honor the past, move to the future.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so what are some things that have worked really well for us, but it’s time to retire and kind of rethink and strategize because students are different because affordability is different because academia is different. You know, what are some things that we have to reshape and what are some things that are, are good and steady, and we’re going to keep those things going.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so taking a look at that and thinking about that was really important and bringing people. Along with you, right? You know, with an organization that establishes capital idea. 

Mallory Erickson: Yeah. I just want to say like you shared all of that, you know, sort of like nonchalantly in terms of like all of, you know, how you listen to and engage and support all of the constituents around your organization to be a part of a process.

Mallory Erickson: And what I really heard in there too is like How much work you’re doing, whether consciously or not, just sort of like [00:13:00] remove your own ego from it, right? And see yourself as a facilitator of community interests and organizational interests and creating the space for You all collectively to move a shared vision forward.

Mallory Erickson: And I just really want to like commend you on that leadership because I think, and I want people to like hear the advice and hear the layers of thoughtfulness evident in that approach. Right? Like I could have asked you that question. You could have said, well, you know, I came in as the ED because I’ve been really passionate about X, Y, and Z.

Mallory Erickson: And I really wanted to be able to make blank happen. And, and not that that would have been like. wrong. That’s sort of a different, that’s a different inspiration for the work and a different type of leadership. But I just, I really do think, especially for someone in your position coming in, in year 23 and helping everybody [00:14:00] become accustomed to a different type of leadership, the way in which you’re demonstrating doing that is really like special and effective.

Mallory Erickson: And, you know, ultimately from what I see is successful. So I just want to sort of really double click on that. 

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Well, thank you for that. I think it is a different type of leadership style, right? There’s different ways to approach, right? And I think this one, this one works well for me. And I think perhaps even coming, you know, from a chamber into this role, it was like, okay, it was always about like members and how we working together.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And what is, what does this look like? And how are we, you know, Kind of navigating change together and bringing people along. And so thank you for that. Um, I think it’s, I think it has worked well so far. So, you know, we keep, we keep every day, every day is every day is a new struggle. But, you know, I think one of the questions you asked too, though, was about, you know, the funding piece and like, how do we think long term about this, the long term sustainability of the organization?

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And, and that is a question that every fundraiser, every CEO, every executive director. I’ll always [00:15:00] ask themselves, you know, you can only plan so far ahead. You can have the best laid plans and a strategic plan that’s five years long. And then, oh my God, pandemic comes and nope, not doing that. You know what, what’s happening now.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so begin to kind of shift and change. So I always say, you know, even having the established plan is a life. It’s a, it’s a living, breathing plan, and we still have to continue to maintain and understand what’s happening around us so that we can adjust as needed. And that’s important, but, you know, and thinking long term about funding, you know, for us being like 60 percent public funding, you know, budgets get approved every year.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so, you know, even though you have a contract that may be 3 year, it’d be 1 year with like maybe 2 or 3 renewal periods. That’s all great. It ultimately comes down to a budget, you know, that has to be approved annually by, you know, whatever, uh, government entity. And so, it requires constant communication, constant understanding, and, you know, with the entities involved, with the staff members involved, with the elected officials involved.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Elective officials also churn, as we know, and so you’re Always educating, always staying, you know, [00:16:00] in contact and it’s really kind of like a give and take. It’s like, okay, you know, let me tell you kind of what’s happening within the community, what we’re seeing based on our students and what we’re hearing.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: I, you know, this is also kind of the funding that we need in order to create this life, lifelong change and this multi generational change for families here in Central Texas. 

Mallory Erickson: Yeah, I love that. And gosh, there’s so much that made me think about. And one of the things that’s popping to the top, and you can tell me if you don’t want to answer this, but is, you know, it seems like so much of your past, you know, leadership roles in this one is a lot about the past.

Mallory Erickson: Supporting change management in an organization, and I’m sure some of those changes are big and some maybe are micro changes that need to happen, you know, in a sequence, but all change is really emotional. And I think often we think about change. You know, from just a strategic perspective, as opposed to sort of the emotional elements of what’s required of individuals who care deeply about [00:17:00] this work to be able to change and to be open to change.

Mallory Erickson: And I’m just curious if there’s anything you have found in your work or anything you really lean on. that help your different constituent groups feel safe and open and ready for some of the changes that you all in your brains know you want, but maybe in your bodies feel more uncomfortable about? 

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Yeah, that’s a great question.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: I think one of my leadership profiles or leadership approaches is lead with empathy. And that kind of came through really visibly in the pandemic, because, you know, even though we had things to do and work to do, we were also all trying to survive and you never knew what somebody was going through. And I think that’s still the case today, even though, you know, the pandemic has subsided, there’s all of these other things that have surfaced that we’re all still working through as we kind of enter in this new normal, post pandemic, you know, all of the things that we’re seeing.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And so, I [00:18:00] try to keep in mind, lead with empathy, especially with my team, and try to be understanding, so, you know, there’s a question, there’s an issue, something’s going on, like, to ask the question, like, hey, are you okay, you know, what’s going on, what’s happening, and to kind of take that perspective first, and assume positive intent.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Right. And to, you know, have open communication with donors and funders to, you know, I think authenticity, I’m sure people talk about it a lot, but I just think, you know, that’s one of the most important key values. You know, it’s, it’s not sales. It’s about trying. I think about fundraising is finding the right.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Fit the right passion for the right donor at the right time. And so, you know, when someone’s interested in, or if we’re talking to somebody, it’s like, okay, well, what are you interested in? Like what impacts you? Is that something that we have a fit for, you know, let’s find out. And so I think we’ve seen a lot of success that way.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: And just having conversations, you know, like, you know, updates, coffee, tea, zoom, whatever it is. Updates with donors and funders about what’s happening, let them ask questions and really be honest and open about what’s [00:19:00] happening within the organization. And, you know, during the pandemic, you know, we had lower enrollment.

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: It was challenging. It was challenging for everybody. And so we were really open and honest about, okay, this is what we’re seeing right now. It is a challenge and this is what we’re doing to help overcome it. And so being real with people and kind of hearing their feedback too about ideas really helped and informed kind of our strategy and how we can move forward.

Mallory Erickson: Thank you. Thank you for all of this. You’ve dropped so much wisdom for nonprofit leaders and fundraisers in 20 minutes. I’m so grateful for your time and your willingness to share and just all of the gems that you provided folks today. Where can they go to learn more about you, your organization, perhaps connect with you?

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: LinkedIn would be the best way to connect with me. Please find me there, Alicia Palacios Woods. Um, and then for Capital Idea, it’s capitalidea. org. I would love for you to learn more about our organization through there. Follow us on social media as well. We’re very active there. 

Mallory Erickson: Amazing. Thank you so much.

Mallory Erickson: Um, I hope that you continue to lean in and see success from this, from your leadership of this [00:20:00] organization. They’re so lucky to have you and just really appreciate the way you’re modeling for the rest of us. 

Alyssia Palacios-Woods: Thank you, Mallory. Appreciate being here today.

Mallory Erickson: I hope today’s episode inspired or challenged you to think differently. For additional takeaways, tips, show notes, and more about our amazing guests and sponsors, head on over to MalloryErickson. com backslash podcast. And if you didn’t know hosting this podcast, isn’t the only thing I do every day. I coach guide and help fundraisers and leaders just like you inside of my program, the power partners formula collective.

Mallory Erickson: Inside the program, I share my methods, tools, and experiences that have helped me fundraise millions of dollars and feel good about myself in the process. To learn more about how I can help you visit MalloryErickson. com backslash power partners. Last but not least, if you enjoyed this episode, I’d love to encourage you to share it with a friend you know would benefit or leave a review.

Mallory Erickson: I’m so grateful for all [00:21:00] of you and the good hard work you’re doing to make our world a better place. I can’t wait to see you in the next episode.

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