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Lonely at the Top: Navigating Non-Profit Leadership Challenges through Mentorship


By Kerry Sitcheron

Leslie Allan Head Shot

Leslie Allen, Executive Director—WIN House, and ECVO Mentor 

For many non-profit leaders, Randy Newman’s song “Lonely at the Top” rings true. Beyond feelings of isolation, non-profit executive directors often find themselves navigating challenging work situations, including teetering on the brink of burnout just to keep the organization sustained, having multiple roles, overcoming the imposter syndrome, managing dynamic relationships within the non-profit ecosystem, and being a support for employees whose livelihoods depend on their ability to steer the organization in the right direction. Indeed, the job of executive director is no easy feat.

ECVO’s Executive Director Mentorship Program, which began in 2017, seeks to create a space for new executive directors to meet, connect and grow with their peers while learning from more experienced executive directors and CEOs.

Recently, we caught up with a longstanding stalwart of the non-profit community and seasoned ECVO mentorship program mentor, Leslie Allen, to ask about her experience being a mentor and the impact the program has had on her.

If you cannot see where you are going, ask someone who has been there before.

The Value of Peer Support  

Leslie Allen, Executive Director of Edmonton’s WIN House and a 35-year veteran in the non-profit sector, knows all too well the challenges and isolation that an executive director can experience in their position. That’s why, in 2020, Allen first decided to become a mentor to a new executive director. She was paired with a mentee she met frequently in her first year. Allen says that the first order of business was to ask her mentee what she wanted to discuss and learn about. At the end of the program, Allen shares, the mentor-mentee relationship soon “morphed into a long-lasting friendship” that still sees both women meeting to discuss challenges and celebrate successes.

One of the most rewarding aspects of being in a mentor-mentee relationship is the ability to grow with each other,” explained Allen. “Over the years, I’ve seen my mentee tackle some really challenging, icky issues. But what I love most of all is the fact that we are growing together. Now, she’s at the point where she challenges me and gives me advice. It is a two-way street.” 

Taking the Mentorship Leap 

The start of any mentorship relationship can be daunting for some. Allen was eager to share her advice on how to overcome the initial hurdles: 

Be open to the relationship, but also be open and realistic about your needs and set your expectations. What sort of help are you looking for, and conversely, what kind of help are you able to give? The next thing is you must show up! Be honest about the time you have and show up when you say you will,” explains Allen. 

Allen offered her most prudent advice to those looking to embrace the journey of becoming a mentor with ECVO’s Executive Director Mentorship Program. “It’s important that mentors not approach the relationship with their own agenda. Be open to the needs of the mentee. Really listen. But most importantly, have fun building this new relationship and knowing that your impact will help the future of the non-profit sector.”

Interested in becoming a mentee or mentor?

ECVO’s Executive Director Mentorship Program kicks off in October with a fun and casual matching party. Think of the event as professional speed dating, with mentors chatting with mentees during an allotted time to ask questions and seek information. Each person makes notes about who they think they would match well with, and a few days later, the mentor-mentee matches are announced. Mentors commit to meet at least three times before the program’s end in January 2024. For many, the mentor-mentee relationship extends beyond the formal program.

Ten mentors have already signed up for the program. The executive director mentors have more than 150 years of experience in the non-profit sector waiting to be imparted to mentees.

If you are a newer non-profit executive director with fewer than 3 years in the role and are interested in being matched with a mentor, please get in touch with The limited mentee spots are filling up quickly. The deadline to sign up is September 22, 2023.

If you are interested in being a mentor, please email