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 genetically 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.”

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. I had many wonderful professors, and I believe my university experience was excellent.

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.

Since then, I can say without hesitation I have not learned as much from anyone else. My mentor on that first development job tried everything she could to raise money for our nonprofit, 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.

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

Commongood Careers notes in, “Finding a Guide: The Value of Having a Professional Mentor”:

“Corporate mentoring programs have long been recognized as an essential strategy for attracting, developing, and retaining top employees.  According to a survey by the American Society for Training and Development, 75% of private sector executives said that mentoring had been critical in helping them reach their current position.

In the social sector, employee mentoring programs are more unusual.  While some innovative organizations are taking steps to create effective internal programs, other organizations offer external programs that connect mentors and mentees; these programs can be a great option for nonprofits that lack the resources to provide internal programs.”

Follow the link above to the full article, and additional helpful resources.

You might also 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.”

Even the most successful business executives have benefited from mentoring!

Certainly, there are several excellent university programs that focus on nonprofit management. 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.

Additional Resources

This article was originally a post under, “Recent Thoughts” (2015). I felt it deserved its own, permanent page!