You Talk With Your Mentor About What Exactly? - Exponent Philanthropy
A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

You Talk With Your Mentor About What Exactly?

Mentorship is an elusive idea. Magazines are full of advice on building and maintaining most kinds of relationships (employment, marriage, parenting), but there are few road maps for finding and nurturing mentorships. This despite the fact that most, if not all, leaders will include the support they received from mentors as part of their recipes for success.

Recently I was at a dinner party with at least 10 people roughly my age, and I was expressing gratitude for one of my mentors. The other guests looked at me a little awkwardly. When I asked if anyone else had an important mentor in their lives, not a single one said yes.

No wonder, then, that when matched with a mentor in a formal setting like our Next Gen Fellows Program, young people can feel a little lost. As leader of the fellowship, the mentor matches I make are the most opaque part of the program—meaning I’m not always in-the-know about exactly how mentors and mentees are approaching the relationship.

This past month, I set out to discover what makes this component productive and effective. I talked to 22 participants, both mentors and mentees.

Although we do provide guidelines and conversation recommendations, I found that mentoring relationships vary considerably. Whereas many people were happy to be grounded by the guidelines, it seems that most pairings ventured far from the path we laid out in the fellowship material—as they should, if it feels right to both parties. That said, most mentorships tapped into one or more of the topics that follow. I share these hoping that future fellows, or anyone developing a mentor or mentee relationship in philanthropy, can use them to clarify the goals of mentorships they establish.

Technical assistance

Although we tend to imagine mentorships will “dig deep” into personal and/or professional development, sometimes it is simply helpful to talk about the day-to-day work and compare practices between the mentor and mentee’s foundations. From board relations to grants management processes to launching a first website, a mentor can help a mentee by listening and providing perspective beyond the echo chamber of the mentee’s home institution. When participants I talked to mentioned this kind of mentorship, it wasn’t unusual for the conversations to feel more peer-to-peer, as mentors also learned something from the mentee’s practices. Since foundations are famously idiosyncratic, people on both sides of the mentorship can appreciate this kind of shop talk.

The learning curve

For a young person in philanthropy, the learning curve can seem daunting. In our program, we cover tax and legal basics, foundation investments, grantmaking practices, and leadership skills such as confidence and envisioning legacy. Then we invite the fellow to dig deeper on their most pressing issues with their mentor, since learning alone can be intimidating. A mentor can be a co-learner, discussing questions or challenges that come up in reading or research, and they can be an accountability support for sticking to one’s learning plan.

Career moves

Unlike in many other fields, the career pathways in philanthropy are not always clear. At least one of our fellows now has an elevated idea of where their career can take them in years to come thanks to mentor conversations. Good mentors can help younger people understand their current situation and articulate their aspirations, and can suggest some important milestones to mark the path from here to there. Also, if a mentor is in the same or similar role as the mentee’s supervisor (or board chair), s/he can help by practicing predictable conversations such as performance reviews or managing board–staff  dynamics.

Expanding networks

Philanthropy is a relationship business, and mentors can help younger people expand their networks in the field. Since smart leaders tend to their networks carefully, this can’t be forced. Rather, it should happen organically, coming out of conversations like those mentors naturally have with mentees. Introductions, grounded in a deep understanding of a mentee’s needs and strengths, are powerful opportunities.

Although not an exhaustive list, I hope the above topics prove useful to mentees and mentors trying to define the character and purpose of new mentoring relationships.

Nathaniel James is a program director at Exponent Philanthropy. He leads peer cohorts and manages resources on family philanthropy, effectiveness skills, and transition points.


  1. Blake Argo

    Finding a mentor that your trust is so imperative to your own success. My mentor was invaluable to my success and I relied on him heavily during the first few years of running a business. My ideal mentor is either Mark Hurd or Jeff Bezos. I have been following the career of Mark Hurd for the last few years now, since he has taken over at Oracle. I have also been impressed with his leadership and ability to turn a company around. I have closely following his statements at OpenWorld 2016 and I am excited for what he has in store and I am looking forward to the direction that Oracle is heading in the next few years.

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