Do You Need a Coach, a Mentor, or Both?

by Joan Garry

The life of a leader can feel lonely. Today I’d like to explore the distinction between a coach and a mentor and offer some advice on how to find a mentor.

The life of a nonprofit leader can be quite lonely. I hear that all the time.

New board chairs are offered precious little in the way of direction and guidance. Executive Directors might use the word “lonely” as much as they use the word “overwhelmed.”

When I first arrived at GLAAD, I knew that I needed some real support if I was going to successfully transition from the for-profit sector. This new nonprofit world I had entered was strange!

What I really needed was a navigator, a guide for coaching for executives, someone to help me learn the ropes and provide some wisdom about what it meant to be a leader in a movement.

But you can’t always get what you want… or need. (Do you have a certain song stuck in your head now too?)

Hire a coach? Ha! There wasn’t enough money for new letterhead.

But I got very lucky. The choice just happened. A colleague E.D. with a long nonprofit history extended herself because she saw my success as important to the movement.

She offered support. Generous.

I took her up on it. Turned out to be one of the smartest moves I made.

Thanks to her, I learned the ropes and avoided falling on my face a few times. I was reminded that I was a leader. She was a sage navigator for me and not once did I label her my mentor. Not until someone asked me years later if I had one.


Today I’d like to explore the distinction between a coach and a mentor and offer some advice on how to find a mentor.

It’s free and it’s way easier than you think.


I do quite a bit of executive coaching. My specialty is new Executive Directors, folks attempting to make change amidst resistance. I also coach board chairs.

In my work, I offer very specific ideas and strategies to help my clients meet a very clear set of goals. We work together every other week for six months. If I do it right, we are both clear about what success looks like right from the beginning and we can celebrate that success at the end.

Coaching is about an individual’s performance as a leader and/or a manager and I see it as my job to point out issues my client doesn’t (or can’t) see and to offer very specific strategies to address the challenges they face.

I’m quite direct and I’m not for everyone. I consider myself a compassionate truth-teller.

I coach folks I know and I coach folks I’ve not met before. And I charge money.


There are a number of folks who consider me a mentor. These folks were employees, colleagues and in many cases, are now friends.

The relationship is informal and as with my own experience, it was so informal, it didn’t need a label. It just was.

For example, my friend and former GLAAD staffer Glennda would tell you that I have been her mentor through the years. I identified her talent early on in her tenure (she did not report directly to me) and invested time in her development – asking her about her aspirations and providing opportunities for her to grown in certain areas. I saw potential in Glennda and felt something of an obligation to offer to develop that with her.

The mentor thing really kicked in after I left GLAAD and Glennda began to consider her own career path. She would reach out and we would talk about jobs she was considering and we’d kick around the pros and cons. It was a totally different experience from being her coach. It was advice from someone who knew her strengths and weaknesses, who could be honest about both and offer two cents about the choices she had.

As I consider the distinction between a coach and a mentor, I realize that when I am wearing my “mentor” hat, I invoke the power of “might.”

You might want to ask this in the interview. You might want to talk to so-and-so – I know her well and she used to be a big donor to that organization. You might want to make a list of pros and cons. And one of my favorite questions: If I spoke to your wife, what advice might she give you?

There’s something about a mentor that is all about having been around the block a few times. Or at least a few more times than the mentee (is that a word? It sounds like something they have at Sea World). I’ve learned a lot of lessons on those trips around the block – some the easy way and others the hard way. It makes me really happy to share them.

One other distinction: A mentor cares deeply about the success of an individual over a period of time, over a course of a number of jobs, because of the emotional connection you develop. Glennda’s long-term professional success matters to me. Personally.

Of course I care about the success of my coaching clients. But there is a level deeper when you are a mentor – it’s a different kind of accountability.


Earlier this year I created the Nonprofit Leadership Lab, in part to try to provide mentorship to a lot more people.

The Lab is made up of a group of nonprofit leaders ­– both board and staff – who want to have a bigger impact and build thriving nonprofits. They get support and training from me and other experts in my network. In addition to my one-on-one clients, the members of the Lab get the bulk of my attention and advice.

I’ve had the pleasure of meeting a number of Lab members in person at assorted “meetups” along the way – often when I’m doing a speaking gig. Whenever this happens, it really hits me how grateful I am to be able to serve as something of a mentor to the “Villagers” (that’s what the Lab members call each other.)

I’m going to open the Lab to some new members pretty soon. If you think it sounds interesting, you can get more information here.


I’m clearly not the only person who has written about this. I liked this article in Forbes and it offers a thoughtful 10 step approach to the task. But ten steps feel like too many so I’ve cut it down to just three that I recommend.

1) Look No Further Than Your Own Backyard

Begin with an assessment of folks in your own workplace. Is there someone in your organization you deeply admire? It could be an aunt or an uncle, or the woman who lives next door. Think about the kind of support you think you need and think about what Mr. Rogers would call “the people in your neighborhood, the people that you meet each day.”

You think there might be a fit? Begin informally. “I’ve been thinking about my career in kind of a broad sense and I wonder if I could buy you coffee and pick your brain a bit. I really admire your own choices and would love some advice.”

2) Explore a Different Kind of Bond in Your Life

Look a bit further than your neighborhood and consider that a great mentor is kind of like a sage professor you had in college. The one you visited during her office hours just… just because. So if you were lucky enough to get a college degree, is there a professor, an administrator, an alum – someone with whom you have that shared connection and commitment to your alma mater? With that connection comes pride and an interest in seeing fellow alums enjoy happy and successful lives.

My first solid job out of college came this way – through a sage professor who was, as I now think about all this, another mentor. He knew me well and introduced me to another more established alum. He thought we would hit it off – that perhaps he could be a professional mentor. He was. And that relationship ultimately led me in 1981 to this little start up you may have heard of – MTV.

3) Join a Group of Kindred Spirits

Mentorship from an individual is ideal, but sometimes it can take a while to find that right person. But there is another way to get mentorship – from a group of peers. When you do it this way, you often find you give as much as you get. You might even ultimately find your mentor. Or many mentors.

When I was an E.D., I was part of a formal support group of Executive Directors of similar organizations in New York City. It was a lifeline for me in my early days but even in those tough days of digging out, I often left feeling like I had actually been helpful to someone else.

I created an online version of a peer network on Facebook. It’s a group of thousands of nonprofit leaders who ask each other important questions and get answers! It’s called Thriving Nonprofit and if you haven’t already, I invite you to join.


Have you ever had somebody in your life you consider a mentor? How did that come about?

Please share in the comments below so we can all get some great ideas.

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