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The Importance of Professional Mentorship

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I often joke that navigating the fortuitous curves in a career is guided first by aspiration, then by chance. In preparing some comments on mentorship, I connected with a variety of professionals—from early career gift officers to senior partners at leading fundraising consultancies—and nearly all agreed with that statement. Here was the constant: reflecting backward and looking forward, mentorship has been an essential key to finding opportunities that feel right and identifying goals that our prior selves would not have thought attainable. Further, it had an equal capacity to demonstrate what not to do and showcase best practices through example.

Much has been written about the importance of mentorship. Bill and Melinda Gates’ relationship with Warren Buffett is historic and Michelle Obama’s with Valerie Jarrett iconic. Dr. Dre is lauded across the music industry for nurturing talent, and Tim Ferriss’ Tribe of Mentors is a bestseller for a reason. These are just a few highly visible examples that emphasize even the most well-known titans of industry did not get there alone. But what is mentorship, and what is the best advice for those who seek its benefit? Each of these questions merit an article in and of itself, but for today, I want to focus on mentorship within development, why it matters, and understanding your purpose.

My Journey

Let me begin with a personal story. Just out of college, I had the opportunity to work in Paris, France for a few years. One of the projects I was leading involved fundraising for a nonprofit arts organization, resulting in an exciting partnership with Canson. This sounds very glamorous until my next point. You see, at the time, I had no idea what fundraising was. My mandate was to produce large-scale art installations, and to do that I needed financial resources. So, I put myself out there and networked like heck, built great relationships with companies with a vested interest in the visual arts, and the rest is history. The thing is, because I was inexperienced and lacked confidence, I did not possess the insight to recognize that I enjoyed the work and could potentially pursue it in my career. Perhaps more significantly, as a trained art historian, the language of fundraising was foreign to me, and I didn’t know how to integrate it into my resume.

This example is not uncommon. Many young professionals arrive in a position through mentorship. In my case, the museum director who hired me following graduate school noticed quickly that I had a knack for building meaningful relationships with constituents and coached me into leading the development program. It is highly unlikely I would have pursued this career without her encouragement. This example showcases the value of early career mentorship within the advancement profession as a not to be overlooked responsibility, both for the dual purpose of identifying talent and furthering diversity of the type of skill set we hire.

Further, the value of mentorship extends beyond the early phases of a career, as there

is another core truth to this profession. Development, by its very nature and through the pursuit of achieving greater impact, is an enterprise of growth. Essential to its practice, is the challenge to us as professionals to seek new solutions, identify new opportunities, and channel highly personal and focused awareness of the changing circumstances within the lives of those we serve. We don’t know what we don’t know, and we must continually seek and learn from other mentors along the way.

A Sense of Purpose

Earlier this year, I attended a panel at a conference for an international higher education organization. The panel was focused on careers in a specific area of higher education and featured several excellent speakers. When it came time for the Q&A, I was surprised by the number of questions from the audience that skipped over the interesting experiences of the panelists and instead focused on how to find a mentor or a job in the sector. Those same questions fell flat.

In reflecting on the dialogue in the days following, the key element missing was a sense of purpose. This is not to suggest that everyone knows exactly what they want to do in their career. I certainly didn’t as illustrated in my own story. In that light, the questions were harmless if not completely expected. But, it is to encourage professionals not to seek mentorship as an end in and of itself. Mentorship is valuable for personal and professional growth and sharing experiences, and it must be approached with reciprocal interest in learning from one another—mentor and mentee. It is perhaps the most meaningful of mentoring relationships that encourage and challenge us to see our value and superpowers slightly differently from our own personal narrative and vision. And that’s a good thing.

KHKatlyn Heusner, MA, CFRE, is an experienced development strategist and fundraiser who currently oversees the development program of the University of California San Diego’s Rady School of Management. Prior to UC San Diego, Katlyn held leadership positions at Lux Art Institute in Encinitas, California, overseeing development and earned revenue strategy; and as Deputy Director at Galerie Mor Charpentier in Paris, France, launching the gallery's international sales portfolio in the United Kingdom and NALA markets and international fair partnerships. She has worked with numerous arts and education organizations, including the City of Paris, University of Oregon, MFA, Boston, MASS MoCA, and Disjecta Contemporary Art Center.

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