How can you benefit from a peer mentor circle?

(A huge thank you to Lindsay Bacher, Sarah Sheldon, and Kristin Swedlund for sharing their reflections on our Peer Mentor Circle with me while I was preparing to write this blog.)

Looking for a mentor, but don’t have connections to anyone “high up” in their career? Consider forming a “Peer Mentor Circle.” What is a Peer Mentor Circle, you ask? I like to think of it as similar to a book club, but is made up of a small group of peers who have come together to act as mentors for one another.

I was part of a Peer Mentor Circle made up of four (and later five) members who were brought together at a YNPN-TC event about mentorship several years ago. Everyone who attended that event was matched up with a small group from the same field within the nonprofit sector. The members of my group were all working in fundraising, but each with a different focus (event-planning, grant-writing, individual giving, etc.) At the event, we had time to get acquainted and exchange contact information. Afterward, it would be up to us to define how we wanted to exist as a Peer Mentor Circle and were responsible for planning to continue to meet.

We came up with some group expectations and ideas for how we’d want to spend our time together. We decided that we’d exist for as long as we were still meeting a need for each other (and also had time to meet). Our meetings were a mix of personal updates, asking for input on specific issues, reading and discussing articles about topics relevant to the nonprofit world, and also hands on activities like reviewing our resumes. We’d take turns taking the lead in planning the next meeting, but usually had an idea on how we’d want to spend our time for each meeting. We disbanded a couple years ago, but I still think about this group regularly and the benefits I got from it that helped me both personally and professionally.

While preparing to write this blog, I reached out to the members of my Peer Mentor Circle to ask what they felt were the benefits of participating in peer mentorship, now that we’ve had a few years of distance for reflection. We feel that it was helpful to have a group of people who were at a similar point in our careers to bounce ideas off. It was also especially helpful to have a group of people who also worked at nonprofits (but who weren’t our coworkers) to commiserate with about workplace issues without the baggage of being involved. This also made it easier when we were looking for advice about job transitions. We could support each other and celebrate job transitions together without the bittersweet feeling of having a coworker leave. During the years we were meeting regularly, we all went through job transitions, and I know without the support of this team it would have been rockier for each of us. We talked each other through applying, interviewing, and negotiating compensation (both in new roles and asking for raises). Because of this group, I’ve been conditioned to ask “did you negotiate your salary?” anytime I talk to a friend who was recently offered a new position.

In addition to the benefits we experienced when we were meeting, we continue to be resources for one another and are still experiencing benefits today. One member of my Peer Mentor Circle, Kristin Swedlund, had this to share about her experience:

I felt like it’s helped me be a better manager later on in my career; I think coaching and providing support are key to good management, and interacting with our group and coaching/supporting each other through various issues and transitions was great preparation. Similarly, I feel like I’ve always heard that the best way to learn yourself is to teach (e.g. a friend in college would teach me biology for hours, which I always felt guilty about, but she insisted it was the best way for her to learn it). I feel like I gained a lot of confidence in my own skills and learned a lot about professionalism and being a nonprofit rockstar both from giving and receiving advice in the context of our peer mentor group.

Want to form your own peer mentor group? Here are some things to consider when getting started:

- Size? (How many people will you be able to coordinate for regular meetings?)

- What ties you together? (Will you try to focus on a similar area of the sector?)

- What types of topics will you cover? (Do you want to keep it flexible, or have set themes?)

- How long will your group meet? (Do you want to set an amount of time, or keep it open?)

- What expectations do members have for this group? (A good practice would be to talk through expectations at an early meeting.)

- Who has ownership? (If it isn’t clear who will be setting meetings and making plans, it will likely flounder.)

- What goals do members have? (Do members want to have a sounding board? Are they hoping for career advancement?)

If you’re interested in forming your own Peer Mentor Circle, but don’t know where to start recruiting members, stay tuned for more information from YNPN-TC about a mentorship event later in 2018! One of the strategic goals for the Programming Committee this year is to hold a mentorship-themed event in the coming months.

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