Why the fundraising profession is custom-built for mentorship - Generocity Philly


Oct. 10, 2018 9:45 am

Why the fundraising profession is custom-built for mentorship

Columnist Valerie Johnson on how beneficial relationships with more senior professionals can be for young nonprofit staffers — and vice versa.

Seek mentorship.

(Courtesy photo)

For a younger professional, mentorship can be a terrifyingly intimidating notion.

When I was in my mid-20s and figuring out what it means to be a professional, it very often felt like I had no idea what I was doing. Deciding what I want my career to look like 30 years from now, right now, and all the steps I need to take across the years to get there? No way. I barely knew what I was eating for dinner, let alone where I wanted my career to go.

So, add to that this idea that I should be seeking out my professional crushes and asking them to mentor me? No way.

Now, a decade into my professional career, I’ve had some mentors (both formal and informal) and I’ve been a mentor. I still don’t know what I want my career to look like in 30 years, but I have a rough outline of where I want to go in the nearer future and a whole tribe of professionals in the fundraising world and beyond who can support me on my way there.


My first breakthrough with mentoring was when my boss recommended I join the local chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals (AFP). I was lucky that she was encouraging and supportive of this move, as not all supervisors or organizations will make that recommendations (or foot the bill).

I showed up to my first event and sat with someone who recommended the AFP mentorship program, where I would be matched with a more established professional for a set period of time. I submitted my application while half hoping I didn’t get matched with anyone. What would I talk to them about? What if they asked me questions I couldn’t answer?

It wasn’t the most successful mentor relationship; we met three or four times across a six-month period. I didn’t really know what I wanted out of our relationship. My mentor encouraged me to identify issues or obstacles I wanted to work on so that we would have something to focus on, and listened attentively as I inarticulately tried to describe my situation and my struggles.

I quickly realized that the lack of formality and shared profession doesn’t make it any less of a mentorship.

My biggest takeaway was brevity. My mentor didn’t need every detail of my life to help me. She provided valuable insight precisely because she was removed from the nitty gritty and looking at the situation from a high-level perspective. We fell out of touch when the formal mentorship period ended, but I am so glad I took that first step and grateful for her support.

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I switched jobs, and for the first several months in my new role I reported to someone on the program side of things until a new fundraiser was hired; she was (and is) awesome. She guided me without telling me what to do. She forced me to examine my decisions and actions and how they impacted my overall goals for the organization and for my career.

She made me want to be better, she made me want to impress her, and I went to her with my struggles long after she was no longer my supervisor. I still occasionally ask her to weigh in on big decisions and often ask myself “What would she do?” in a tough situation.

Did I formally ask her to be my mentor? Nope. Did it matter that she wasn’t a fundraiser? Nope. I quickly realized that the lack of formality and shared profession doesn’t make it any less of a mentorship.


I got more involved with AFP, joined a committee, and made a point of connecting with fellow fundraisers for coffee whenever I could just to get to know people. Eventually I was asked to be a mentor, and I was excited but incredibly nervous to be on the other side of that table.

Turns out, being a mentor is every bit as valuable as being a mentee. I’ve been matched with two mentees now, and I have learned a ton. Some folks value years of experience and titles, some value having a sounding board, some value practical advice. Matching mentors and mentees based on their values is much more productive than matching based on their area of expertise, their location or their availability. It can be tough to find that perfect mix when sorting applications for a formal mentorship process but it’s an important consideration.

My job as a fundraiser is to build relationships with people and help them to achieve their goals.

In the interim, I kept cultivating relationships with folks who really get what I do every day so that I could learn from them. I started to find that when I had specific questions, I knew someone — usually several someones — that I could ask with expertise or experience in that area. I also started fielding similar inquiries from my network when others ran into issues they knew I had dealt with. These informal mentor/mentee relationships with my peers are invaluable.

Fundraising is a profession that is custom built for mentorships. My job as a fundraiser is to build relationships with people and help them to achieve their goals. Ideally, their goal is to champion a cause: end world hunger, support immigrants and refugees, support education. And I’m right there with them to learn more about their passions, connect them to my own organization’s mission, and also make other relevant connects.

Do they love trail running? Introduce them to Chasing Trail, a group that runs and supports the trails of the Wissahickon. Are they a fan of local breweries? Let them know about Love City Brewing, a supporter of local nonprofits.

I genuinely enjoy getting to know people, learning more about their lives and their motivations, and helping them. That’s why I became a fundraiser. Most of my fundraising friends are the same. They remember details, they check in at the right time and they provide insights when I’m too far down in the details to see the big picture. These skills are the same skills needed in a mentor.


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