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 President of the Nonprofit Career Coach and founder of Jobs in Nonprofits (JNP). He can be reached on twitter at @jobsnonprofits or email at email@example.com. Molly Zeff is a researcher/writer at JNP.
Career transition? Focus on your mission not on your resume.
Most people start a career change by trying to re-write their resume. Having interviewed over 10,000 individuals in the nonprofit arena, I can’t tell you how important it is to start, instead, by identifying and defining your ideal career. Don’t get me wrong, a well-written resume is an important step in the career transition process, but it should not lead your career change. A more effective and sustainable alternative is to start with clarifying and nailing down your mission or purpose.
What is your vocational mission?
Choosing your vocational mission is a journey that starts with identifying what values and interests are MOST important to you and what you enjoy doing the most. Your vocational mission, you may find, may not stray far from your life’s mission or the goals you hope to achieve in your future. Identifying your mission does not have to be a lengthy self-assessment but rather a thoughtful look at what has been most important to you in your life. What do you absolutely love doing? What brings joy to you every time you do it?
Two major factors to focus on while identifying and clarifying your career purpose or vocational mission are:
– Cultural fit
Some people ask “Why not start with my existing skills when making a career change to the nonprofit sector?”. Richard Nelson Bolles, the author of What Color Is Your Parachute? addresses this issue in the Parachute workbook. He states, “…experience has shown to be true: If it is a skill you do well, you will generally enjoy it. If it is a skill you enjoy, it is generally because you do it well.”
When making a career transition it is much more useful to assess your skills and interests with the question, “Do I enjoy doing it?” rather than, “Am I capable of doing it?”.
Interests are a key factor when making the transition to the social sector. What do you love doing? What do you want to stay away from or avoid? What makes you fulfilled or extremely happy? Think of past volunteer or personal experiences that gave you a sense of purpose or pride. Think of issues or causes that have touched you personally.
As you think about these interests, identify which populations or causes really speak to you. For example if you love working with children, then Big Brother Big Sisters might be a great organization to pursue. If cancer has touched your family, you might be interested in working with those helping to find a cure for breast cancer, so the Susan G. Komen Foundation or similar organizations might be a good fit.
When you work in a culture where you are extremely passionate about the goals and motivated to make a difference, you will often find the organizational fit to be a great match as well.
One of the biggest questions to ask yourself is, “Do I like a larger organization or a smaller one?”. In most cases, the smaller the organization is, the more variety of tasks and projects there will be for each individual to manage. The larger the organization, the more focused each staff member’s day to day operations will tend to be. Many career-changers have been working in a large company with a large support team and with access to many resources but may be just fine with a smaller support staff and may be happy to use their skills to manage a variety of tasks in order to help advance the organization. My experience has shown that smaller nonprofits are more flexible with career-changers than larger nonprofits. Many larger nonprofits want someone who has worked in the sector before and are less likely to be able to do on-the-job training.
Say hello to Kim… (Does this sound like you?)
Working with a career coach who is dedicated to the nonprofit sector is an ideal way to help accelerate your career-change. That is what a client of mine, Kim, discovered when she was laid off from her IT job in 2009 after working there for over eight years.
Kim knew that this was just the opportunity to jump into a more fulfilling career in nonprofits, but was getting very frustrated after submitting countless resumes and not receiving a single interview request.
Kim had recently volunteered abroad for a human services organization and was able to use her gift of languages to help youth. As we spoke about this experience, Kim explained why this experience was so special to her. It turns out Kim had been a tutor and peer-mentor as a teen. Kim relayed a story about a particular student she had mentored and recalled what a life-changing experience it had been.
One of the only things Kim was sure about from her experience in the corporate world was that she really enjoyed being part of a small team. She really enjoyed the strong bonds that were built and knew she would like a similar culture in her next job.
After a bit more of research and probing, we came to focus in on local human service nonprofits that focused on serving the growing Asian community. We focused on organizations that were smaller and community-based, which offered Kim the close-knit camaraderie she craved. In addition, these organizations were more likely to acknowledge Kim’s language skills and recent volunteer experience right from the beginning.
Today Kim is a case worker for a local human service organization serving the Asian community. This position focuses on a population she cares deeply about and which she is energized to serve. Because it is a small organization, Kim has close bonds with her co-workers. These small and diverse groups of peers all have a common goal to help and serve this Asian community. The multicultural requirements of the job allow Kim to use her language gifts and knowledge gained from past experiences. Kim has found her career path for social impact by focusing on what she loves and whom she wants to serve. Every day, she is building her character and value through paid nonprofit experience and learning how to make a difference in the daily lives of the population she serves.
Mark McCurdy is President and Founder of Jobs In Nonprofits, LLC and is an expert in careers in nonprofits. Mark is a career strategist who has developed “Impact6”, six key strategies for finding a dream job for social impact. Tune in to “Dream Jobs for Social Impact” at www.blogtalkradio.com/nonprofitcareercoach for inspiring interviews. For further information or to schedule a talk you can reach Mark on Twitter at @jobsnonprofits or email firstname.lastname@example.org.