Mentorships Build Tomorrow’s Nonprofit leaders

By Mark McCurdy and Molly Zeff

With three out of four nonprofit executives expected to leave their jobs during the next five years, mentorship programs provide an effective tool to help fill the leadership vacuum by ensuring that future top-level executives are better prepared to take over.

Mentors are guides who provide advice based on their experience in a given field. A more specific definition comes from one nonprofit, Career Collaborative, a nonprofit that provides employment services, which defines mentoring as “a tool to facilitate, guide, and encourage growth and creativity while preparing for the future.”

While the mentee is the more obvious beneficiary, mentors find the relationship to be an excellent way to have a long-term impact on individuals, their organizations, and the nonprofit sector as a whole. In passing their knowledge to a less-experienced individual, mentors have the rare opportunity to gain insights into different types and levels of jobs, which improves their abilities to effectively supervise in their own workplace.

The structure of mentorships varies widely: Mentorships can be formal or informal, of a short, fixed duration or open-ended. A mentorship could be an internal, structured program complete with trainings, goals, and activities that matches a company’s newest hires with veterans in the office. Alternatively, it could simply be a casual arrangement—monthly lunches or a phone call every few months—initiated by an individual in a new position who occasionally seeks out a more experienced colleague’s advice on a particular strategy or project.

Andrew Cohen, who works on health-care access at The Access Project, a Boston nonprofit that helps local communities improve health and healthcare access, has benefited in countless ways from experiences as both a mentor and a mentee.

His year-long experience mentoring a recent college graduate taught him that “being a mentor can be a really important skill-building exercise”; it allows us “to put in practice the skills needed to build another leader.” Mentoring deepened his own leadership by prompting him to consciously reflect on his own work.

“It’s really easy to go through your life and your work without taking the time to look back at how you’re doing it and why you’re doing it and how to be more effective,” Cohen explains. “Mentoring provides me with the time and place for reflection on the work that I do.”

Benefiting the Sector

Regardless of their structure, mentorships improve the ability of nonprofit professionals at all levels of an organization to execute their jobs well. Moreover, they can improve the nonprofit sector as a whole in a number of ways:

Promote positive change. Knowledge-sharing facilitates networking between employees and organizations. Networking, in turn, builds contacts, raises an organization’s visibility, and encourages nonprofit professionals who share similar goals to work together. The resulting collaborative relationships quickly build the power to affect real change.

Shorten the learning curve. Mentorships help new employees quickly identify the skills necessary to do their jobs well. A mentor’s expert guidance enables them to recognize the best strategy or tactic in a work situation and to sense potential pitfalls. Applying lessons learned from mentors’ past experiences helps employees avoid the same mistakes and enhances the mentees’ impact early in their new roles.

Provide an outsider’s perspective. Because they do not have an evaluative relationship with the mentee, mentors are able to provide valuable advice from an outside perspective. Additionally, they are not caught up in day-to-day management tasks, such as fundraising, supervising, and program development, at the mentee's organization.

Confront challenges. Mentorships build self-confidence in new employees while building the mentee’s ability to deal with challenges in the workplace and effectively confront issues as they arise.

Retain knowledge. Mentorships ensure that the experience of executives and other nonprofit professionals will continue to benefit individuals and the sector even after these executives have moved on. The more knowledge that flows freely among nonprofit professionals, the more likely that the invaluable lessons mentors learned throughout their careers are not lost.

Many invaluable mentorship resources are either free or low-cost. To create a mentorship program in your workplace, or to learn more, look into these resources: Mark McCurdy is founder and president of Jobs in Nonprofits (JNP) and the Mentor Center for Social Change. He can be reached at Molly Zeff is a researcher/writer at JNP.