Chapter 1: The Organization Mentor Concept

Chapter 1: The Organization Mentor Concept


In 2010, the Community Foundation for Monterey County launched the Community Leadership Project (CLP).* Its aim was to strengthen small or nascent nonprofit organizations in Monterey County, particularly those led by or serving communities of color, and eventually included grantees in Santa Cruz and San Benito Counties. Since many of the participating organizations were new to the concept of building capacity, the program’s designers understood early on that they would need significant and ongoing support to take advantage of the resources the initiative provided.

*The funders supporting the Community Leadership Project were the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation

Evolution of the Mentor Concept

In thinking about how to best support the organizations, the program designers took several key understandings into consideration.

Grassroots organizations with a strong sense of mission, given the choice to invest in capacity building or in programs, will usually choose to allocate their funding to providing services to the community. Therefore, capacity-building support would need to be designated for that purpose or provided at no cost, and be an integral part of the grant program. This type of support is most effective if combined with multi-year funding for general operations.

Traditionally structured consulting or coaching relationships would not be sufficient to make the support fully accessible to the participating organizations. The organizations would need a resource person with deep experience in small or grassroots organizational development who could be a partner in this development. This person would have the flexibility to co-design the relationship based on each organization’s needs and aspirations and interact with its leaders in a mutually agreed-upon schedule and process. This person was called a “mentor,” combining the characteristics of a personal mentor with the technical assistance approach and structure usually associated with consulting or coaching relationships.

The mentor offered a sounding board; connections to resources; and supportive, non-judgmental counsel – all while supporting goals and aspirations defined by the organization. The mentor was not expected to provide all the answers to the organization’s challenges, but rather support the organization in finding their own answers.

As the concept evolved, it became clear that the mentor could help build the capacity of the organization while also helping the organization’s key staff, volunteers, and board members develop their own leadership capacities.

This approach was tested for the seven years of the CLP and was incorporated into other funding initiatives in the region. Although these initiatives included a variety of funding and capacity building approaches, the “mentor” model was primarily the same. The consultants who developed the original model continued to play a mentor role ‑ learning, refining and documenting the model as the experience unfolded.

Characteristics of Organizations Mentored

The mentorship approach was initially conceived as a method for supporting small, grassroots, or nascent organizations, whose leaders had limited or no experience managing an organization. Some organizations had secured their 501 (c) 3 status, while others were fiscally sponsored groups.

In terms of organizational capacity, most of the organizations mentored began their work firmly grounded in their passion for improving the quality of life of people in their communities. Common strengths included:

  • A strong sense of values, mission, and commitment to serving their community.
  • A core group of committed, honest, hardworking volunteers and leaders.
  • Significant leadership potential.
  • Engagement of a sector or population often underrepresented or marginalized.

However, the groups needed to improve their administrative capacity to manage and sustain their organizations. Common challenges included:

  • No paid staff or very few employees, and no hiring or personnel management systems and policies in place.
  • Underdeveloped or ineffective board or not well-defined leadership team.
  • Inadequate facilities from which to operate, provide services, or convene community.
  • Few sources of funding and little or no experience creating fund development or business plans.
  • Limited or no organizational systems or tools to manage funds, use technology or evaluate programs.
  • Lack of a well-thought-out vision or a documented strategic, long-term plan.
  • No internal operational policies (financial, risk management, personnel, etc.).
  • Few effective means for communicating their vision, mission and outcomes of their work.

The mentor approach allowed these organizations to strengthen their organizational infrastructure at a pace and sequence appropriate to their specific situation and interests.

Over time, the mentors also supported more mature organizations and seasoned leaders who found the opportunity to work closely with an experienced colleague and partner very useful, particularly if the organization or the leaders where facing a significant change in direction or challenging circumstances.

Chapter 2 provides a summary of effective mentor characteristics and practices.