Make Way for Mentoring - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Make Way for Mentoring

Who do you turn to for advice on becoming a great trustee or an effective donor, or overcoming on-the-job challenges?

As part of our Next Gen Fellows Program, a training program for emerging philanthropic leaders, we launched a mentoring program to pair fellows with seasoned practitioners.

It taught us just how valuable mentoring can be for those engaged in philanthropy—new or seasoned—and reminded us how often this tool is overlooked in our field. Mentoring can go a long way toward developing inspiring social sector leaders, and it also benefits the seasoned mentors who serve as guide, coach, counselor, or friend. 

Make It Happen

For many, the trickiest part of mentoring is taking action to engage a mentor or mentee.

For mentees, the advised:
  • Do your homework. What do you want to achieve through mentoring? What might that relationship look like?
  • Identify potential mentors. Create a list of individuals whose traits, skills, or positions you admire. If you don’t have a direct connection, find a way to be introduced. Professional associations or universities are another way to get involved in mentoring. Many have formalized programs that match mentors and mentees.
  • Make the ask. Reach out to one or two possible mentors and ask for an exploratory conversation (e.g., about his or her professional, philanthropic, or personal goals). In this first conversation, you’re simply looking to assess fit. Be clear about what you’re hoping to discuss, and keep in mind that you don’t have to use the word “mentor” or “mentoring” in your communications. Look for a sincere connection; there is no reason to force a relationship.
  • Take the lead. More often than not, the mentee drives successful mentoring. Demonstrate your commitment to growth by taking responsibility for building the relationship with your chosen mentor.
  • Share your goals. Set a timeline and ask your mentor to hold you to it.

Mentees are provided with a forum for feedback, support, insight, experience, and wisdom through intentional conversations with mentors. Mentees count on their mentors to support them as they develop professionally. And, as appropriate, they rely on their mentors to become genuine champions and “door openers” for them.

For mentors, the advisors:
  • Make yourself available. Take time to listen to and talk with less experienced professionals about their passions and goals. Make it clear that you’re willing to connect on a regular basis.
  • Be clear about your goals. What is it that you want to get out of the relationship? Mentoring is not simply a one-way street.
  • Embrace curiosity and active listening. Offer to share your experiences and wisdom, but only as appropriate. Make it a point to really Get to know your mentee’s motivations. Guide or coach by using powerful, open-ended questions—a great tool to help someone work through a problem.
  • Commit to developing self, colleagues, and the social sector. Let the mentee lead the way, and encourage him or her to do so if you sense hesitation.

Mentors are presented with opportunities to lead. They put their wisdom and experience into words and deepen their experience by developing and supporting more junior colleagues. Mentoring offers a chance to gain new insights from a mentee’s perspective. Mentors can play many roles— guide, coach, counselor, thought partner, role model, advocate, cheerleader, or friend—throughout the relationship.

Make It a Success

When starting off, we recommend a regular date and time to meet, perhaps on a weekly, monthly, or quarterly basis in person, by phone, or through video chat. The pair might set an agenda or topic for discussion, or conversations might follow a looser structure.

Here are a few other tips to strengthen any mentoring relationship:

  • Mentees and mentors should agree that the mentee is responsible for his or her own learning and development. The mentee needs to drive the agenda for conversations, email the agenda at least 24 hours in advance, and state exactly what he or she wishes to take away from the conversation.
  • Mentors must lead with curiosity and listen well, assume their mentees are talented and capable, and ask good questions to draw out the mentee’s wisdom and insight.
  • Mentors understand that most “sticky learning” occurs when the mentee reaches his or her own conclusions based on the context in which he or she works, and that mentors can facilitate this learning by asking good questions.
  • Both parties keep the content of conversations confidential unless either has explicit permission to share.
  • For structured mentoring, mentees and mentors clarify expectations, time limits, and boundaries.
  • Both parties make a personal connection and align their goals before diving in.
  • Both parties are curious, respectful, present, and engaged.

Our thanks to Next Gen Fellows Program mentees and mentors for sharing their experiences, and to Jen Walper Roberts, founder and CEO of Conspire Coaching & Consulting, who helped us develop the program’s mentoring component.

Program Manager Stephen Alexander designs sessions for our educational programs and coordinates content production with the goal of delivering the best service possible to the Exponent Philanthropy community. Before coming to Exponent Philanthropy, Stephen worked with Thomson Reuters, Jones Lang LaSalle, and two small nonprofits in Washington, DC. Stephen currently serves on the board of the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network’s DC chapter. Follow Stephen on Twitter @StephenALXdc and Exponent Philanthropy @exponentphil.


  1. […] Mentoring—Formal relationships with those further along in the philanthropic journey can support and nurture b…, and strengthen their organizations as a result.  […]

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