For meaningful mentoring, learn from law firms

Expert Insight

For meaningful mentoring, learn from law firms

Mentorship programs are often promoted in professional development offerings as a means of networking and skill development. However, they regularly lead to ad hoc partnerships with ambiguous impact. Borrowing a model used by law firms, University Hospitals Health System showed that fundraisers benefit from real-time strategy coaching provided through more structured approaches to mentoring.

Moving beyond traditional mentorship programs

The mentorship programs included in professional development offerings often require large time commitments, but do not necessarily target specific skill gaps for the mentor or mentee. A newer gift officer is often paired with a more senior fundraiser, and the pair is encouraged to discuss questions pertaining to the role, the institution, or the industry. These mentorships focus on networking and short-term assistance, but ignore the potential for longer-term skill building.

Mentorships can be meaningful if the program is designed to emphasize collaboration and shared goals. In order to do this, University Hospitals Health System of Cleveland, Ohio, looked to law firms for a model.

Adapting a model from the legal industry

Most law firms use a partnership model: a senior leader acts as the external face of the firm, while a more junior associate completes most of the back-end work. As a result, leaders are able to reach more clients than they could alone, while associates gain immediate feedback on strategy and exposure to top clients. The partnership works because both participants contribute to the client relationship, while each has the chance to build specific skills.

Toolkit: Provide continuous and ongoing opportunities for professional development

Adapting the partnership model for frontline fundraisers can follow one of the following approaches:

  • Approach 1: A senior leader owns a prospect relationship, and asks a more junior gift officer to help with a specific prospect.
  • Approach 2: A junior gift officer asks a senior leader to serve as an “executive sponsor” who will assist with one prospect in the junior gift officer’s portfolio.

Clearly define responsibilities and rules to ensure success

The real-time strategy coaching model works because each participant has clearly defined responsibilities. Senior leaders (chief development officers and vice presidents) approve all strategy decisions, and they act as the face of the institution in donor interactions. More junior fundraisers develop strategies, conduct research, and create proposals. Both members of the partnership work to move the strategy forward and improve it over time.



Ground rules ensure that senior leaders prioritize the program and avoid unintentionally creating roadblocks or gaps in communication with the junior fundraisers. At University Hospitals, a clear set of governing principles is shared with all participants to ensure that the program meets the participants’ expectations and that the junior fundraisers actually gain exposure to top prospects.

Governing principles

Shared credit acts as an added incentive for participation

To reinforce the collaborative environment built through these partnerships, all fundraisers receive credit for work completed as part of an executive sponsorship. Prospects are tagged in the IT system as being associated with an executive sponsorship, and dollars raised are credited to both fundraisers in end-of-year reports.

Building skills and increasing prospect reach

Participating in real-time coaching enables junior development officers to receive one-on-one coaching from senior leaders as they develop strategies instead of waiting for an annual review. The partnership also gives them exposure to higher-level prospects than would otherwise be possible.

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Benefits for Both Junior Fundraisers and Senior Leaders

Key benefits

In addition to improving leadership and management skills, senior development leaders are able to reach more high-value prospects than they could otherwise. Working with a junior fundraiser means that back-end work and research is accomplished by multiple people, increasing the time available for in-person visits and other communication. As a result, University Hospitals exceeded its goal for principal gifts during the program’s first year.

Accelerating performance for long-term success

At University Hospitals, real-time strategy coaching partnerships mean that every fundraiser is able to work on at least one gift of over $5 million. This increases junior fundraisers’ abilities to work independently on such gifts in the future, and is an opportunity to get involved with such projects much earlier on.

Updating your mentorship program is one step to ensure long-term fundraiser success. For more strategies to build fundraiser skills, improve onboarding, and increase retention rates, take a look at the Professional Development Playbook. Download the full toolkit.