Mentoring and “Real World” Fundraising

I have enjoyed reading posts by Richard Branson on the importance of mentoring and “real world experience.” Like Richard, I believe hands-on experience results in greater depth of understanding and ultimately, greater success.

I am predisposed to learning by seeing and doing. I credit this in part to an engineer father and mathematics-minded mother. But also, our family has its share of artists and musicians. We learn visually and by trying things out, “by hand.”

I like the metaphor of a “light” for mentoring. This one is courtesy of Adobe Creative Cloud.

Having said this, I also trained myself to be academically-minded, disciplined and research-oriented through the acquisition of two university degrees, a Bachelor of Arts and a Master of Arts.

But in terms of my career, the best teacher in my chosen field was the supervisor at my first nonprofit fundraising job. She was tough and we did not always agree, but I absorbed everything she did like a sponge. I was fascinated by her can-do spirit, her leadership, and her willingness to try new things.

I starting my nonprofit journey by volunteering for a local art museum while attending graduate school. The Director of Development spotted me as being someone who might be good at development, and she asked if I might like to try part-time work. That eventually led to full-time employment at the museum.

Since those early days, I can say without hesitation I have not learned as much from anyone else. My mentor on that first job tried everything she could to raise money for the museum, from membership and annual fund drives to special events, from special project underwriting to major gift fundraising. She also understood every detail of the work required, and there was no pulling the wool over her eyes. You either did the work – or learned quickly how to do it – or you were not long on staff.

I took a liking to nonprofit fundraising, in part because she recognized I had talent and encouraged me, and I was a happy camper. I rose from volunteer to a part-time development assistant to the coordinator of a multi-million dollar endowment campaign in four years’ time.

You might enjoy, “Richard Branson’s Guide to Finding a Mentor”:

“Mentoring has had such a profound impact on my life and Virgin’s success that I feel it’s paramount to any promising businessperson’s journey. As I have written before, I attribute much of the success of Virgin Atlantic to my relationship with my own mentor, Sir Freddie Laker, the founder of Laker Airways. I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in the airline industry without Freddie’s down-to-earth wisdom.”

Some of the most successful business executives have benefited from mentoring!

Certainly, there are several excellent university programs that focus on nonprofit management, and you can earn advanced academic degrees in them. If you go to my Fundraising Resources section under, “Professional Development,” click on the photo at the top of the page for a list from U.S. News & World Report of leading graduate programs.

But to my mind, there is nothing quite as meaningful and impactful as learning from someone who has done the work themselves. Those who have experienced both success and failure can provide invaluable advice in work and life. If you are new to nonprofit fundraising, consider seeking an experienced mentor. Even if you can only secure occasional advice, the benefits of such a partnership can be truly life-changing!


  • Thomas L. Friedman for Forbes, “It Takes a Mentor” (September, 2014). “What are the things that happen at a college or technical school that, more than anything else, produce “engaged” employees on a fulfilling career track? According to Brandon Busteed, the executive director of Gallup’s education division, two things stand out. Successful students had one or more teachers who were mentors and took a real interest in their aspirations, and they had an internship related to what they were learning in school.”
  • Mentor: National Mentoring Partnership. “Mentoring, at its core, guarantees young people that there is someone who cares about them, assures them they are not alone in dealing with day-to-day challenges, and makes them feel like they matter. Research confirms that quality mentoring relationships have powerful positive effects on young people in a variety of personal, academic, and professional situations. Ultimately, mentoring connects a young person to personal growth and development, and social and economic opportunity. Yet one in three young people will grow up without this critical asset.”

I would like to mention that when the economic downturn of the late 2000s occurred, I moved to San Antonio, Texas. Few nonprofits were interested in nor willing to tackle major gift campaigns during this time, and I thought I would just wait it out. I began reading more, studying global news, learning social media, and I launched Carolyn’s Nonprofit Blog in 2011. One of the people who inspired me most was Sir Richard Branson, who it seems has always had an interest in capitalism and social good. I follow him online still today.

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