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How to Know You’ve Found Your Mentor

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Special to the Philanthropy Journal

By Elizabeth Romero

This article is part of an ongoing series with FleishmanHillard, a full-service global public relations agency. The firm specializes in multiple channels and industries including nonprofit, consumer, healthcare and technology. The group is driven by a mission to go beyond for clients and to consistently develop bold work that creates value and changes conversations. In line with this mission, members of the FleishmanHillard team will continue to share their expertise and insights on topics that touch both the professional and personal lives of those in the workforce.  

Nonprofit leaders often find themselves with limited resources, making it essential to deliberately seek out a mentor as a professional guide. Where some organizations approach mentorship deliberately through structured mentor programs, this is not the norm, especially in the nonprofit world. Therefore, you are most likely to be on your own to find a mentor. Below are tips on where to look and how to make the most of the relationship for both parties.

First, know the difference between a mentor and a sponsor. In the book, Lean In, Sheryl Sandburg cites that sponsors won’t always make themselves known, working in the background to advocate for you by commending your work or recommending you for a particular project. Mentors, on the other hand, are an active source of advice and guidance supporting your career evolution. These individuals can be in your workplace, industry or even a completely different field. The ultimate goal of both sponsors and mentors is to support you in achieving your short- and long-term professional aspirations, but a mentor lets you peek behind the curtain and eventually equips you to pass on the learnings to the next “generation” of nonprofit professionals.

As you set out to find a mentor there are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Relationships – I have never had someone say, “I’d like to be your mentor,” nor have I asked someone directly if they would be my mentor. To find a mentor you should begin by nurturing relationships within your nonprofit organization’s network of affiliates and in your personal connections. In her book, Sandburg notes that people are drawn to mentoring someone with a spark they want to watch grow. The mentor may even see something of themselves in the mentee. The only way to let people see that spark is by putting yourself out there and by being yourself.
  • An organic evolution – Finding a mentor may take time. It usually happens through the evolution of a relationship. That’s why it’s so important to find opportunities to stay in touch with people in your field. Nurturing these relationships may lead you on a path to finding an authentic mentor that is just right for you. It may not happen overnight, so just keep at it.
  • There’s only 24-hours in a day – Just like you, your potential mentors have demanding jobs, are involved in their communities, and they have a life outside of work so always respect their time. Come to your conversations prepared with possible solutions to your challenges and value the insight they have to offer.
  • Flip it on its head – From time-to-time I’ve often thought mentorship can take the form of a council. Mentorship may be fluid and you may gain very different perspectives from more than one person. This could also present you with tremendous value. As a nonprofit executive, you may need someone from the nonprofit world to think on and discuss best practices whereas someone in the private space may plant a creative seed you hadn’t prior considered.

The main takeaway is to get to know your peers and find the mentorship formula that works for you, and for your nonprofit organization’s goal, while being considerate of other people’s time. Like friendships, mentor relationships develop and change over time.

What’s next? From Mentee to Mentor:

Once you’ve been mentored or are further along in your career as a nonprofit executive and have the opportunity to reflect on your own trajectory, take a moment to consider how you will help guide new leaders. Be intentional about this. Be open to interacting with people who are just beginning their nonprofit careers. Take that call from someone just graduating college to listen and provide career advice. Try to point them to others in your network with whom they may be able to connect to gather insights and grow. Even share your own experience and passion for nonprofit can help to give someone a spark of inspiration to drive their own path.

Within your own organization, put yourself in the shoes of the intern or junior team member, and remember what that felt like. Don’t just assign a task, take the time to explain why. Within the often resource conservative nonprofit world, letting a protégé in a bit more, and taking the time to teach, may benefit you greatly in the long run.

Once you’ve “arrived” so to speak, keep three things in mind. First, even two to five years into your career, you carry valuable insight to offer others be open to guiding them. Think of it as being a mentor in training. Second, you are never too experienced to be mentored or learn something new, perhaps even from an intern or younger colleague. Third, always remember what it was like to be a mentee. What did you expect from the relationship? How could your mentor have guided you in learning how to ask the right questions or read the right books to get you thinking?

Although it’s easy to be swept up in the laundry list of action items each day, take a moment to break for coffee and conversation with someone who might be able to help spark creative ideas or insights for those who have been in your shoes. Those in the nonprofit arena are at a special advantage when it comes to options for a mentor given their access to multiple facets of the community – from colleagues to volunteers to those they rub elbows with in the private sector of CSR, the options to connect are virtually endless.


Elizabeth Romero is a senior vice president at FleishmanHillard, with a focus on healthcare practice. Active in her community, Mrs. Romero serves on the board for the Triangle Chapter of March of Dimes and has previous served on the board of directors for Wake Health Services, Inc., and has also has been a member of United Way of Broward County Women’s Way, American Heart Association Community Board and Women in Communications.

FleishmanHillard is a global integrated communications and public relations agency with over 80 offices in 30 countries. To read more articles in the nonprofit lifestyle series, click here

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