Best practices for mentoring programs

Programs that match one person with another for the purpose of coaching, learning, listening and guidance are a wonderful tool to implement many nonprofit missions. Mentoring projects can be found in the private and public sectors, of course, although not with the frequency, duration, or success as nonprofits have demonstrated. For all our experience in refining this process, however, there are still too many attempts to set up nonprofit mentoring initiatives that fall short.

Here’s a quick summary of generally accepted best practices. Like many of our checklists, the notable absence of just one element can actually derail a well-intentioned and even well-funded program.

1. Targeted recruitment with ample expectations and role descriptions. The primary ingredient required for an effective mentoring program is time. Every mentor must be aware of, and commit to, a minimum time commitment, as should the mentee. Ideally, you will continuously be seeking new candidates, particularly for the mentor role; if you only find the exact number of mentors you need, you won’t be ready for the inevitable bumps in the road ahead (see #8, Adjustment).

2. Detailed screening of appropriate participants for both roles. Your industry and the nature of your mission will dictate the extent of background checks for prospective mentors, but screening mentees against defined criteria is recommended as well. Being mentored is a privilege, after all.

3. A thorough interview process and sound matching. To the extent possible, your mentors have experienced some of the same risk factor characteristics—and have been successful–that the mentee is facing. This may seem obvious, but the odds of a good match that doesn’t have this element in common drop significantly. Credibility and trust are so critical between the two individuals; only your specific program parameters will dictate whether first-hand experience with a risk factor is key (i.e., versus an academic understanding, which is better than no exposure to the risk at all).

4. Strong front-end training for both parties on the purpose of the match should include suggested process and desired outcomes. Creating opportunities for connections among peers for both mentors and mentees can be very helpful as everyone learns how to fit in and maximize benefit.

5. Stakeholders’ understanding. Orientation is key for parents, spouses, teachers, and others who have a role in the match. Among other issues that may be unique to your program, this may be a “boundary” issue or simply a logistical one.

6. Monitoring and supervision. How much and when depends on the population you serve, the leadership of the mentors, and the nature of the risk factor(s). Suffice to say it’s better to overdo on this point up front than have to play catch-up if things don’t go well. Some nonprofits observe matches for a provisional period of time at the onset before allowing the meetings or outings to move “outside.”

7. Retention strategy. You must not simply “make a good match” and hope nature takes care of the rest. All relationships evolve over time, and your organization’s ongoing support is very important. Fresh ideas and group events, along with separate mentor and mentee group meetings, will help ensure that your nonprofit doesn’t lose out on all the resources spent so far in recruiting and training, only to see one or both members of the match lose interest and wander off before the term is over.

8. Adjustment. Make sure you are open to the possibility that a match won’t take, but that a mentor and mentee could each find success with another person instead. Don’t let a failed match mean that either or both individuals leave your program. Be ready with your best mediation and communications skills to promptly adjust the match in a way that isn’t awkward and doesn’t assign blame. Only your seasoned staff will be able to tell whether a match needs help in surviving a rough patch versus a match that needs to be dissolved. This is where having a bigger field of potential mentors will be critical.

9. Closure procedures should leave all participants satisfied. As noted above, all matches must have a finite timeframe for renewal or termination. Post-match interviews with both parties are great. Be prepared for success, too—the amazing matches that continue between two people long after the official program has ended. Is this universally positive for your nonprofit? Is that relationship in any way your responsibility?

10. Process and outcome evaluation. As is the case with so much work we do, defining standards for success and measuring against them can always be improved. Don’t launch a mentoring program in a vacuum; seek the advice of more seasoned programs in your community or industry. Defining and demonstrating true impact is critical to your longer-term funding and success.