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The People We Get to Work With...and the People We Call Mentors

by Leah Lundquist
follow me on Twitter: @leahlundquist

The Twin Cities nonprofit/philanthropic community just lost an incredible man. Ron McKinley died very suddenly on Sunday, July 21st when a driver who crossed the centerline on a Washington highway struck his motorcycle. As Bridget Ulrich previously shared on this blog, an event like this shakes the community to its core. It compels us to reflect on his incredible legacy. I’ll let you marvel at Ron’s career achievementselsewhere. Here, I’ll share what I appreciated so much about him as a boss and mentor in hopes that we can all be inspired to be kinder bosses, more generous mentors and impassioned changemakers. 

Ron hired me when I was only a year out of college as an Administrative Assistant on a national project that he was directing. I quickly found out my title was virtually irrelevant as he invited me to high-level meetings with partners and our funder to determine the design, implementation and evaluation of this cutting-edge national capacity building initiative. 

He referred to both Mai Neng Moua (the Project Coordinator) and I as colleagues. He never missed an opportunity to ask for our perspective and to emphasize he trusted us; that we could fail and he would vouch for us. He celebrated the diversity of perspectives our small team brought to every decision - having a Boomer, a Gen X and a Millennial from a diversity of cultural backgrounds for a team. Almost daily, he would ask, “Have I told you guys lately how much I love working with you?” We would laugh and say, “I don’t think so. Better tell us again…” 

He sought to create pathways for our career growth, and we knew he wouldn’t play games with compensation, advocating for us to be compensated at the highest level of the pay range. He kindly encouraged excellence and we rose to meet it. 

He was authentic and caring with those around him. Even at the end of the most intense meetings with external partners, he could break the tension with a joke that would have everyone cracking a smile.  

He chose not to have an office with a closed door, but to sit in an open circle of cubes with Mai Neng and I. Whenever possible, we would convene at the table between our cubes to eat lunch together, swapping stories about family, past jobs, and cross-country adventures.

Ron was an active advocate around diversity and inclusion. This morning when I biked to work, I biked past Mixed Blood Theater, an organization in which Ron was deeply involved as a board member. I once again saw the sign that reads, Dedicated to the Vision of Martin Luther King, Jr. Ron was truly dedicated to this vision throughout his lifetime and was skilled in recruiting others to commit to that vision

Having worked a lifetime in the sector, he would sometimes shake his head at the cyclical nature of debates and the sticky nature of issues such as diversifying leadership in the sector. He would say, “You know, Leah, sometimes I can barely believe that we’re having the same conversations we were having 20 years ago. But you do see incremental change. That’s just how change happens.”  

One lunch – after what I’m sure was a slightly disillusioning conversation about one of these frustrations with the sector – I recall asking Ron what kept him optimistic. Without hesitation, he responded, “The people. I’ve loved the people I’ve gotten to work with.”  

I could not agree more. It’s people like Ron, people like you all – my fellow YNPNers – who have made work in the nonprofit/philanthropic sector feel like home. 

…And the people we call mentors
by Stephanie Jacobs
follow me on Twitter: @sjacobs


I worked with Leah and Ron in the same office when they were working together on that big national project. Ron was progressive, bold, community oriented and full of fierce passion. I liked him immediately upon meeting him.

We were both graduates of St. Olaf College and we talked at length about our times on campus and how different things were for a Native American man in the 70’s and for a white girl in the 00’s. Our desks faced each other and we talked over the cube wall until one of us would eventually wander over so we could chat face to face. Almost all of my free time at work involved some sort of talk with Ron. He was an amazing storyteller.  

I loved all of his stories, but especially the stories from his many road trips on his motorcycle. He literally rode his bike all around the country, and the way he would describe the landscape made you feel as though you were on the bike with him. He wanted as little between him and the world as possible. He wanted to ride all over it, see it for himself, feel the wind in every part of the country.

We stayed close when we both moved on to other work. He was my mentor as I navigated the culture of philanthropy. We would talk over lunch about traditional philanthropy and privilege and what it would take to move those mountains. Because Ron really did think those mountains were movable. His passion was infectious.

And when I was unhappy last year, struggling with the culture of the organization I worked for and philanthropy in general, Ron suggested I take a road trip. He knew from all of his time on the road on his motorcycle of the restorative power of nature and he knew it was exactly what I needed. I had no idea that I needed it. And I never in a million years would have thought about taking an extended road trip, by myself, through Canada, camping along the way if he hadn’t gently nudged me down that path.  

That trip really did change my life. That trip made me want to get healthy and make peace with my body and spirit. It reminded me to not take things so seriously and offered me great perspective. And it made me open to other opportunities to improve my life and embrace them when they came, in both my personal and professional life.

This is what good mentors will do for you. They enrich your whole being, your whole person. They will bring all of their wisdom, insight, and love to bear and will somehow say exactly the right thing, exactly when you need it. And the best way to repay and thank your mentors for everything they have given you is to do the same for someone else. When a colleague asks you for advice or a friend wants your feedback on an idea, keep your eyes, heart, and mind open. And say yes.

What’s brilliant about mentors is they, intentionally or unintentionally, create a natural community around them of people who are often doing similar work or have similar values. And in difficult times like these, when the loss weighs on each individual so heavily, that community is there for support. None of us has a monopoly on grief. It’s shared by us all, and this community he created was Ron’s greatest gift to us. Ron truly believed communities know best how to address the opportunities and challenges they face. Ron’s community will find the best way to heal together.  

For those who never had the opportunity to meet Ron, we hope this served as a window into his immense wisdom and a sense of his warmth and humor. We’d love to hear about the mentors in your life and the kind of difference they have made for you. For those who have had the joy of knowing Ron, we have no doubt you were equally inspired by him and would welcome you to share what you learned from Ron in response to this post.

Tags: Leadership

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