To the Editor:

Eboo Patel’s recent column “A Nonprofit Mentoring Crisis Threatens Future Leadership of the Field” (November 29) doesn’t give young nonprofit workers enough credit.

As an elder millennial and department leader, I talk often about what it takes to be a good supervisor and mentor. The social-change work we do is too important to keep hard-won knowledge to ourselves.

Patel correctly notes that “relatively new employees feel it’s their right to question virtually every aspect of what their employers do and how they do it.” We hired them for their passion, critical-thinking skills, and persistence. We can’t then act surprised when that’s exactly what they give us.

To broaden the conversation about mentorship, here are some concrete suggestions:

  • Separate mentorship and supervision. These are two different relationships. One is voluntary, while the other is structural. Both need trust and consistent feedback to function, but conflating the two can cause confusion. “Are you telling me this because you’re trying to be helpful? Or if I don’t do this, is my job in jeopardy?”
  • Be explicit, and take no for an answer. Unsolicited mentorship is more likely to be unwelcome. If someone doesn’t see me as a trusted advisor, it makes sense that they would reject my advice. They might hear the same message differently from someone else. If my goal is smarter leaders and stronger movements — not an ego boost — I should support that.
  • Try all-are-welcome teaching moments. Part of my job is training recently promoted coworkers, and I open these sessions to any interested junior staff. It doesn’t cost me extra time, it provides skill building for colleagues thinking about advancement, and it develops a deeper bench of expertise in the organization. It also encourages future conversations or feedback. In these sessions, I even publicly share examples of what I consider excellent work, so others can see what I value.
  • Provide specific, positive feedback. “Good job!” is lovely to hear. But people — especially high performers — need specifics about what made it good so they can replicate their success. Patel’s examples highlight critical or corrective feedback. We’re good at picking apart why something’s bad, but we should instead share why something worked well.
  • Proactively invite feedback. Staff who don’t have regular access to department or organizational leaders are more likely to bring up big or small issues in public forums. If you aren’t confident in your ability to handle conflict publicly and in a big group, you should provide consistent, low-risk ways for people to come to you with their concerns.
  • Take time for introspection. “I can’t say that: They would crucify me,” said one leader quoted in Patel’s piece. I get it. Leaders like to be liked. But if your strategy is just conflict avoidance, it seems like you either a) don’t trust your HR team to run an impartial investigation to identify actual harassment or bias if you’re accused, or b) that you should reflect on why staff wouldn’t want to hear what you have to say.

    Working with a coach might help. It’s unlikely you’ll be harmed by staff upheaval. So what are you worried about? Your internal or external reputation? Controlling the narrative? Admitting you have more to learn? And is any of that more important than your organization’s mission and effectiveness?

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Patel highlights the following observation from Ryan Grim’s piece in the Intercept: “The progressive advocacy space across the board has, more or less, ceased to function.” I agree that it has ceased to function — but only as it has in the past. That’s good. How we work needs to evolve in order to sustain us and allow for transformative change.

My younger colleagues are brilliant. They’re eager for wisdom, not just advice. Where they get that wisdom is their choice. And if the next generation of leaders is leaving current leaders behind and creating something better, I’m happy to follow their lead.

Trista Kendall
Senior Director, Institutional Relations
Stand.earth