The Responsibility To Mentor
Three nonprofit stars discuss their thoughts on mentorship
Dec 16, 2014


Kate Barr knows a thing or two about giving advice. As the executive director of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund, she’s been helping organizations get their finances in line for nearly 15 years. But along the way she’s also made it a point to connect with the people behind the companies and nonprofits in the Twin Cities.Dana Nelson, DeAnna Cummings, and Laura Zabel are three of those leaders.

We asked each executive director to share their perspective on the responsibility they have to mentor others, and how they actively put that into practice.


Dana Nelson

Executive director (aka cheerleader in chief) of GiveMN

Just a month after taking the reins at GiveMN in 2009, Dana drove the success of the largest single-day online nonprofit fundraising campaign in history. Five years later, she hasn’t looked back. 



The thing that bothers me about mentoring is the assumption that one person has more to offer than the other. I have never found that to be true. If I am “mentoring” someone, I always learn something from them and benefit from the relationship. I have a lot of coffee meetings (I heart espresso!), and I love meeting people who reach out because they are curious about nonprofits, or want to learn more about my work and the seemingly strange decisions I have made.  Yes, it is a responsibility, but it is also an honor to have those conversations. I leave a bit buzzed from the caffeine and the inspiration of meeting someone you don’t know and becoming friends. It is the magic of humanity.


DeAnna Cummings
Executive director at Juxtaposition Arts


For 20 years DeAnna worked to build an arts organization to channel the exuberance and creativity of North Minneapolis youth into positive neighborhood contributions.  The President’s Committee on the Arts and Humanities recognized her program as one of the 50 best out-of-school arts programs in the country.

I’ve been doing the work I do as the executive director for nearly 20 years. Starting last year, it dawned on me — I have a body of work, experiences, and a knowledge base. I’m not necessarily the person with the same energy I had in my early 20s to be doing, starting, and creating things from the ground up.  I realized I’m at a point in my professional development where my role is really to share what I know with the next generation of professionals who are growing, developing, and following in the path that we’ve laid in the ecosystem of arts, community development, youth development, and social justice work. I made a conscious decision that it’s important for me to mentor others one-on-one, in a personal relationship, but also in terms of growing the field. I’ve been on panels and engaged in more external conversations with other people about the work I do at JXTA and what I’ve learned over time.


I’m at a point where it’s important for me to be externally focused as much as it’s important for me to be internally focused.


It’s important to be very targeted in how I’m engaging and sharing the base of knowledge I’ve accumulated. Accepting the initiation to join the board at the Bush Foundation is part of that work. I also have individuals I meet with on a regular basis, in a more formal mentor-mentee relationship. There’s also a half dozen to a dozen people I meet with periodically — not in a formal kind of way, but people I get together with on occasion who are interested in picking my brain and sharing best practices. It’s like with Kate Barr, I never said, ‘Hey Kate, would you be my mentor?’ Nor did Kate ever say, ‘Hey DeAnna, I want to mentor you.’ It’s a relationship that developed over time through sustained interaction, conversation, and getting together on a regular basis. I consider her to be one of my mentors and she considers me to be someone she mentors, but it was never a formal agreement or conversation.


The mentor relationship developed through a real relationship.




Laura Zabel
Executive director of Springboard for the Arts

After nearly a decade at Springboard, Laura has catapulted the organization into the national spotlight while increasing the balance sheet from $200K to $2.5 million, and impacting about 12,000 artists annually. 


Part of what I’ve learned from Kate is that we all have a responsibility to help each other, to show up and share what we know, to ask hard questions, and to push the work forward together. I guess I don’t really think about this as mentorship, but more about building real, authentic relationships with colleagues and friends.

I actively serve as a mentor by helping, prodding, and pushing others in a way that feels reciprocal and grounded in the work we want to accomplish and the change we want to make in the world. Kate never says, ‘Hello, I am your MENTOR now!’ She just says, ‘Hello, let’s get to work. Let me help.’ That’s the kind of colleague I aspire to be.

Illustration By Evan Palmer

Posted by on Dec 16, 2014

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