A post to Exponent Philanthropy's blog

Lessons From Our Foundation’s Nonprofit Mentoring Program

Rick Nahmias started Food Forward without any intention of becoming a nonprofit executive director. A photographer, Nahmias was moved by the mirror issues of U.S. hunger and food waste that he documented in his work. He started bringing volunteers together to pick fruit from backyard trees in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley that would otherwise go to waste, and donating it to food banks. This immediately caught on, with volunteers clamoring for opportunities, property owners wanting their trees picked, and food banks grateful for the donated produce. Rick put more and more time into Food Forward and realized that he was running an organization.

Food Forward received a grant from The Durfee Foundation’s Springboard Fund, which supports young L.A.-based community organizations with strong leadership. For two years, Springboard grantees receive $35,000/year in unrestricted funding and a mentor—an alum of one of Durfee’s Sabbatical or Stanton Fellowship programs—who is paid to work with them up to 50 hours per year.

Rick chose to work with Steve LePore, founder and CEO of 1in6, and the founder of two other nonprofits before that. The two met at least twice a month in person or on the phone to talk through some of the issues on Rick’s mind: obtaining 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, getting office space, building a board, fundraising, buying a van.

Steve, having started three nonprofits from scratch, had a lot to share. A good mentor helps the mentee see around the corner, because as Steve noted, “a new E.D. doesn’t know what he doesn’t know.” Steve showed Rick how to create a budget and live by it, and gave tips on communicating with funders.

The mentor–mentee relationship between Rick and Steve is just one example; Durfee’s Springboard program has matched many new founders with mentors over the 10 years operating our program. We encourage other funders to think about pairing experienced and emerging leaders, but note that careful preparation needs to take place first.

Here are some of the lessons we have learned:

Chemistry matters when matching mentors and mentees. You as the funder may think you have the perfect match: a mentor with deep expertise in strategic planning, a leader who wants to learn. But just like when you tried to set up your former roommate with that nice guy from work and the whole thing fizzled, the chemistry has to be there. Everything might look good on paper, but the two people need to click to benefit.

Empower both prospective mentors and mentees to turn down a match. When we started our mentor program, we thought we knew how to match people. We assigned mentees to mentors and sent them on their way. This changed when Rick returned from meeting with his assigned mentor and said that, though he really liked and admired the person, she had a different skill set than what he needed to learn. We appreciated his honesty and made new suggestions; he selected Steve. This reminded us how a funder’s suggestion can sound like a command to a grantee. We now give mentees a list of five prospective mentors and encourage them to meet with all and let us know with whom they think they will work best.

Mentors and mentees don’t have to be from the same field, and maybe shouldn’t be. It’s a natural instinct to think that the best mentor for an environmental activist is an experienced environmental leader. We have found that it can be better to make cross-disciplinary matches: the domestic violence pioneer with the community gardener; the food security advocate with the girls’ technology educator. Most of the lessons about building an organization or a movement are not specific to that field, and cross-pollination across fields can add richness to the mentor–mentee relationship.

Compensate mentors for their time. People in the nonprofit sector are generous to a fault. They give the community their time and energy, and are typically undercompensated for their considerable skills. Don’t assume that mentors will be delighted to devote un- or undercompensated hours to their mentees. Honor their commitment and expertise by paying a fair hourly rate for their time. Paying the mentor also avoids the problem of the mentees feeling like they are asking for a favor every time they need some of the mentor’s time. Durfee contracts with mentors for up to 50 hours/year at $150/hour, and we will likely raise that rate soon.

Be clear about expectations. Make sure both parties understand what the mentor relationship entails by asking them to sign a contract outlining the terms. If you have specific expectations, for example, that they will meet X times each month, in person or by phone, work that out with both parties. In our program, a mentor is similar to but different from a coach. They are the wise person you can bounce ideas around with, get advice from, or learn from about hazards you might not have contemplated. The mentee is not obligated to follow all the advice of the mentor. The mentor is not a consultant who will draft your new strategic plan, though she might help you with it.

Mentors gain from the experience too. One of our biggest surprises was learning how much the mentors gained from the experience. We had envisioned it as more of a one-way street, with all the benefits flowing to the mentee. But we heard over and over how much fun the mentors were having, tapping into the startup energy of a new organization and connecting with a passionate leader. For someone who has been doing the work for decades, it can be energizing to reflect on all that has been learned and share it with an eager social entrepreneur.

Since implementing the mentorship component of our Springboard program, we have heard time and again from grantees that, whereas they truly appreciate the unrestricted grant dollars, it’s the mentorship that gives them an extra boost. Implemented carefully, a mentorship program can provide tremendous value to both emerging and experienced leaders.

Carrie AveryCarrie Avery is president of The Durfee Foundation in Los Angeles, which focuses on leadership by providing fellowships, grants to new grassroots organizations with dynamic leadership, and sabbaticals to longtime nonprofit leaders. She serves on the boards of Grantmakers for Effective Organizations in Washington, D.C., the RGK Foundation in Austin, Texas, and the Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California. She is a past board chair of the National Center for Family Philanthropy and Northern California Grantmakers, and co-chaired the board of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco.

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