Called by God to serve others, former Ford executive works to help community

Jim Vella, who retired in 2019 as president of the Ford Motor Company Fund and community services, started the Vella Group in 2020 to respond to a need he saw among nonprofits in the city of Detroit. A consultancy agency with a focus on community service organizations, Vella said the work of his philanthropic group is geared toward helping organizations thrive in their work, especially with the less fortunate. (Photos by Gabriella Patti | Detroit Catholic)

Inspired by the Jesuit example of service, Jim Vella started the Vella Group in 2020 to provide a hand to nonprofits in Detroit

DETROIT — When Jim Vella retired from the Ford Motor Company in 2019 after 31 years with the Detroit automaker, he knew he wasn't done helping people.

Vella's job as president of the Ford Motor Company Fund and community services called him to positively impact communities all over the world, but that calling didn't begin and end with Ford — God was calling him to help people, too. And he knew he wanted to stay true to his Catholic faith.

In 2020, Vella launched the Vella Group, a nonprofit strategic philanthropic company based in Detroit’s Eastern Market. He moved back into the city, just a short bike ride away from his offices, and made it his goal to give back his gifts, talents and means to the city where he was raised.

“Ever since then, the Lord has been guiding my hand, and I try not to think about it too much and let it happen, and it seems to be working,” Vella told Detroit Catholic.

Along with four partners, Vella works with nonprofit organizations to provide business expertise and help them leverage their resources in creative and cost-effective ways. Vella’s clients include the Detroit Sports Commission, the Autism Alliance of Michigan, and the Pope Francis Center, to name just a few.

“Our mission is to help make the world a better place. We like to say, internally, we can’t save the world, but we sure can help the part we live in,” Vella said. “I think each one of our projects has created an impact in its way, whether it is educating people, feeding people, giving folks who might not have the opportunity otherwise to be successful.”

Jim Vella works from his office in Detroit's Eastern Market. Vella, the son of Maltese immigrants, grew up on Detroit's west side. He says his parents instilled the virtue of hard work from a young age, a lesson he's carried with him throughout his career, in addition to their steadfast faith.
Jim Vella works from his office in Detroit's Eastern Market. Vella, the son of Maltese immigrants, grew up on Detroit's west side. He says his parents instilled the virtue of hard work from a young age, a lesson he's carried with him throughout his career, in addition to their steadfast faith.

The Vella Group uses a three-pronged approach to help nonprofits by providing resources and advice on organizational development, fund development and marketing strategies that utilize storytelling to enhance organizations' visibility in the community, Vella said.

"A lot of groups can't afford to have a separate PR agency and a separate chief operating officer, and a separate development group, but we can help provide resources and access to some very talented people," Vella said.

Vella grew up on the southwest side of Detroit, the son of Maltese immigrants. As a child, his family attend Most Holy Redeemer Parish, where he was an altar server.

Vella's desire to give back started with his parents, who immigrated to Detroit in 1950, taught him the value of being a good neighbor and worked for the good of others in the community, all while emphasizing Sunday Mass and the importance of the sacraments.

“I have always wanted to give back to the community, and certainly, our faith teaches us to give back to others,” Vella explained. “There are numerous times in Scripture where the Lord talks about this — whether it is clothing people or visiting them in hospitals or prisons. My pastor, Fr. Ron Richards, who I had at St. John Neumann (Parish) in Canton, always talked about evangelizing — not only talking about Scripture, but living it. It's a lot easier to talk about it than it is to live it.”

Vella graduated with a communications degree from the University of Detroit Mercy, where he said the Jesuit priests counseled him and helped him deepen his faith.

“I think the Jesuits who taught me there and counseled me reinforced everything that I had learned in my Catholic faith, but they also brought a broader view of the Catholic faith and what it was to serve and how important it was to have a moral compass,” Vella said.

While the Vella Group works with a variety of nonprofits, some faith-based, Jim Vella is particularly inspired by the work of the Jesuit-run Pope Francis Center, a homeless outreach center in downtown Detroit. Vella became involved with the center during his career at Ford, and continues to serve on its board.
While the Vella Group works with a variety of nonprofits, some faith-based, Jim Vella is particularly inspired by the work of the Jesuit-run Pope Francis Center, a homeless outreach center in downtown Detroit. Vella became involved with the center during his career at Ford, and continues to serve on its board.

Through his work at the Ford Fund, Vella became familiar with the work of the Pope Francis Center, a resource center for the homeless run by the Jesuits in the city of Detroit.

Vella said the example of the Pope Francis Center's leader, Fr. Tim McCabe, SJ, has been deeply moving and influential. Vella now serves on the center's board, and while they are a client of his, Fr. McCabe has become a spiritual adviser to him as well.

“I think serving the homeless is (about) serving people most in need, and that's where you can make a huge impact,” Vella said. “We are literally saving people's lives and are going to change the trajectory of their lives. Not that the other work isn’t important, but that is probably service in the most powerful fashion.”

When asked whether his work with the Pope Francis Center influenced his decision to start the Vella Group, Vella pauses — it's a chicken or the egg situation, he says, and he isn’t sure what came first.

“It all kind of happened at a time when I was more open in my life,” Vella explained. “When you are working at a Fortune 100 company, and you are traveling the world, there is not as much time to follow a calling of your own. (My) calling (was) the work I was already doing, and I kind of felt like the work I was doing with the fund making an impact not only at communities here in the U.S., but all around the world, was something I was called to do."

After his retirement, Vella felt the time was right to put his gifts and talents to work helping organizations like the Pope Francis Center continue their valuable service to the community.

A quote from St. Teresa of Calcutta hangs on the wall of the Vella Group's office in Eastern Market. Vella says his faith in God is a driving factor of the work he does, but is quick to add it's not the only way to serve the Lord.
A quote from St. Teresa of Calcutta hangs on the wall of the Vella Group's office in Eastern Market. Vella says his faith in God is a driving factor of the work he does, but is quick to add it's not the only way to serve the Lord.

"I felt like that was a real sweet spot for me," Vella said. "I loved doing the work, and I didn’t want to stop doing it, and I knew I could help. People told me I could help, and there was certainly a lot of need, so it just kind of happened.”

While Vella enjoys serving the homeless, he's quick to add that's not the only way to serve God. As a dedicated family man, Vella enjoys spending his time with his three children and five grandchildren — which is a calling in itself, he added.

“You serve as a parent, as a grandfather mentoring your own family, as a good neighbor, a good brother — there are lots of ways to serve God,” Vella said.

Vella encourages his fellow Catholics to get involved — even in small ways — to help the community around them, particularly in Detroit, and to always depend on the power of prayer.

"It is important to share what we have been given,” Vella said. “I know how busy everyone is, and I know the pressure of life today and everything happening in the world. I know it can be discouraging at times, but for me personally, prayer has always been the answer. Prayer is an active thing. You pray, and you ask, but then you have to listen. I think it is very important — there is nothing in my life that has ever substituted for the power of prayer.”



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