Supporting foundation professionals effectively: the critical role of mentoring and community

Mentoring Skills for Foundation Professionals

People working within foundations and grant-making organisations face unique challenges that require a blend of strategic vision, operational expertise, human-centred leadership and the ability to build and sustain meaningful relationships within and beyond their organisations. However, they often find themselves navigating these challenges with limited support, time, resources and capacity building, making structured mentoring and community programmes essential resources that can significantly enhance their effectiveness and well-being.

The growing complexity of foundation and grant leadership

The landscape of grant-making has evolved dramatically over the past decade. According to Devex research, the top eight foundations funding development alone have increased by 52.2% in grant spending from 2017 to 2020 — or from $9.1 billion to $13.8 billion. This growth, while positive, brings increased complexity. Foundation and grant leaders must balance the expectations of diverse stakeholders, manage multi-generational and culturally diverse teams, personal challenges being brought by colleagues into the workplace and insufficient line management skills reducing team cohesion, lower productivity and diminished confident. Leaders must ensure their organisations remain adaptive and innovative in a rapidly changing world. They need to:

1. Balance multiple responsibilities: Foundation and grant professionals often juggle various roles, from strategic planning to stakeholder management. The CEP State of Non-Profit 2024 reveals that leaders pivot among many aspects of their organisations’ work and are being overextended, leading to high level of stress and potential burnout.

“As the executive director [ED], I am the only C-level executive within the organisation,” says one leader. “Maintaining the budgetary discipline, we need for an organisation our size can be demanding when added to all of my other duties — HR, IT infrastructure, programmatic work, etc.”

Another says, “As an ED for a smaller [nonprofit], I struggle to be the expert in all of the relevant areas. I struggle with working too many hours and not having enough staff or time to do all I want and need to do for my organisation.”

2. Build effective relationships: Successful grant-making relies on strong relationships with grantees and other stakeholders. However, many leaders struggle to move beyond transactional interactions to develop deeper, more meaningful relationships and partnerships. Research by The Grantmaker for Effective Organisations shows that 70% of funders are willing to engage with their grantees in open dialogue about general operating support, but only 32% of nonprofits believe they are. Relationship-building after all takes time and skills.

3. Prevent burnout: For passion and purpose-driven individuals, the demands of foundation and grant management roles can take a toll on personal well-being. The CEP research indicates that 95% of leaders surveyed express some level of concern about burnout, with more than a third reporting that staff burnout has been “very much” a concern to them in the last year. Burnout impacts their organisation’s ability to achieve its mission, creating a crisis not just for nonprofits, but for the communities and people they serve.

4. Stay innovative: As the philanthropic landscape evolves, so must the strategies employed by foundation and grant managers and leaders. In a 2017 article, the Stanford Social Innovation Review pointed out that while 80% of these leaders described innovation as “an urgent imperative,” only 40% of them felt their organisations were prepared to innovate. This underscores the ongoing challenge of staying innovative while ensuring alignment with the organisation’s mission.

The role of mentoring and community

Given these challenges, peer mentoring and community programmes offer valuable solutions. These programmes provide a structured environment where leaders can develop essential skills, share experiences, and gain insights from peers and mentors. Here’s how they can make a difference:

1. Skill Development: Structured mentoring programmes provide targeted training that enable leaders to deepen their self-awareness, self and professional leadership and effective communication and relationship-building skills.

Ben Allen, Principles for Responsible Investment who was part of our New Economy Leaders Academy programme said that:
“Participating in a mentoring programme was transformative. The skills I developed and the support I received from my peers helped me navigate complex challenges and drive impactful change in my organisation.”

2. Support System: A community of peers offers a support system that is vital for personal and professional growth. Engaging with peers facing similar challenges allows for immense feelings of priceless support and the exchange of ideas and solutions.

Katherine Hermans, Global Changemakers, who took part in one of our mentoring programme highlights: “The community aspect of the programme was invaluable. Sharing experiences with other leaders not only provided practical insights but also inspired and motivated me to continue striving for excellence.”

3. Networking Opportunities: Community programmes provide opportunities for individuals to build a network of professionals in and across organisations, sectors and geographies.  This network can be invaluable for sharing best practices, collaborating on initiatives, and gaining new perspectives.

4. Personal Wellbeing: Addressing personal wellbeing is crucial for sustainable leadership. Mentoring programmes, which focus on the person first and the role second, enable people to identify and address their internal and external interferences that hold them back, which often lead to feelings of loneliness, stress, burnout and work-life imbalance. Building these leaders’ self-awareness and understanding of what self-care means for themselves, is essential for preventing burnout and for creating human-centred cultures and organisations.