How to start a mentor program in your nonprofit

Creating a mentorship program is one of the best ways nonprofits can train and keep skilled staff and volunteers. In addition to getting everyone up to speed on your goals and to-do’s, mentors help mentees feel safe, guided and more personally connected to the overall vision.

A mentorship program also shows current and future staff that you’re willing to invest time in helping everyone feel supported.

Mentoring meeting between two women

Here’s why it’s time to create a mentoring program for your nonprofit and how to show new mentors the ropes.

Establish mentorship as a team value

It’s important to show your team what mentorship really is and why it matters. This will help them see value in being a mentor (or a mentee), which can make the volunteer program more successful.

Start by talking about the benefits of mentorship. In a practical sense, mentors can save everyone time by streamlining training. It’s also about clarifying roles so volunteers understand where they’re needed and why they’re valued, youth mentoring expert Jean Rhodes, Ph.D. suggests.

She points to a study on volunteer turnover that suggests volunteers who have more clarity and voice in a role are less likely to experience burnout. The study also shows that the more a volunteer feels burned out, the more likely they are to quit. This suggests that mentorship programs — which give people more structure in a role — can reduce volunteer turnover.

From an individual perspective, mentoring helps people feel like they matter and that they have a say. As writer Lindsay Kolowich points out, “Being a mentor involves making yourself available to support and advise someone when they need it, delivering that support in a way that makes sense to them, and always keeping that person’s best interests in mind.”

Mentoring programs can also help your organization maintain skills and knowledge over time, Susan Jacobs at Learning Solution says. Whether it’s a canvassing talking point or a silly story from the early days, mentors are the ones who carry and pass on the soul of an organization. When mentors see that they play a role in preserving the culture of an organization, they’ll understand why mentorship is an important team value.

Create a clear goal for your mentorship program so that people understand why it matters, Sarah Kessler at Inc. writes. That goal will inform how you structure the program, so it’s important to decide this early on.

Decide on a mentorship model

Next, define how mentors and mentees will work together. Consultant West Stringfellow outlines five models of mentorship, all courtesy of The Institute for Clinical Research Education at the University of Pittsburgh:

  • One-on-one mentoring. This can provide volunteers with a more personal experience in which they build a strong bond and feel trusted
  • Team mentoring. This has the benefit of offering multiple perspectives on issues, which may be helpful for providing guidance and feedback
  • Multiple mentoring. This is different from team mentoring in that volunteers have several mentors, but they meet with those mentors individually, not as a group. Stringfellow cautions that such a model, while rich in perspective, can contribute to “Mentor Whiplash,” the feeling that you’re getting contradictory advice from members of that mentoring team.
  • Peer mentoring. This is a better fit for someone far along in their relationship with your organization. Peer mentors call upon deep and broad firsthand experience to help mentees through stages of development that they themselves have crossed.
  • Distance mentoring. This is effective when you have a mentor who has precisely the insight necessary to help someone, but that person might not be available for regular face-to-face help. Instead, you build a mentor-mentee relationship through email, regular phone calls or video chats.

To see how a well-defined mentorship model can be beneficial, consider the one-on-one mentoring Rick Nahmias received when he founded his nonprofit. In 2009, Rick Nahmias started Food Forward to address hunger in his local community by picking fruit from backyard fruit trees. The growing organization caught the attention of The Durfee Foundation, which offers $70,000 grants to Los Angeles community-based organizations through the Springboard Fund. The grant also provides recipients up to 50 hours a year with a knowledgeable mentor.

For his mentor, Nahmias chose Steve LePore, who had already founded a couple of nonprofits in the past. The two talked about everything from getting office space to fundraising to buying a van. LePore gave Nahmias both big-picture guidance as well as budgeting and management tips, gleaned from his own experience.

A decade later, Nahmias’ organization has grown so big that Food Forward had to secure a new place to store and process food. That new depot will process about 40 million pounds of fresh produce annually.

Help mentors find the right match

Any mentorship program’s success is defined by the people who are involved, explains Darby Starnes, HR manager at TriNet. This is why it’s important to connect mentors and mentees whose goals and personalities mesh.

“It’s a good idea to start by taking into consideration the unique needs and personalities of those who will receive the mentoring and which potential mentors might make a good match for them,” Starnes writes. “Then leaders can approach these team members to gauge their interest in mentoring,” adds Starnes.

Think about which of your volunteers need mentors, then consider who on your team has the skills, character and personality to make a great mentor. This is the foundation of creating a strong mentorship culture where both mentees and mentors feel valued and supported by the experience.

Find outside mentors for your own leadership team

It’s easy to narrowly define mentorship as something for incoming volunteers. But as you foster an organization-wide culture of sharing and collaboration, start thinking about ways to infuse the spirit of mentorship in your leadership teams, as well.

Plenty of organizations rely on external advice to focus their missions and empower their leadership teams. One of the best ways to find mentors for your leadership team is to look to platforms and resources designed to facilitate those connections:

  • Nonprofit Learning Lab encourages nonprofit leaders to seek out seasoned executives at similar organizations. This program brings mentees and mentors together to share strategies and solutions that can be directly applied to the challenges nonprofits face.
  • GlobalGiving is a platform that connects nonprofits with skilled mentors who specialize in specific subjects. Its mentors can help nonprofit leaders build out their social presences, or show organizations how to tell stories that resonate with their audiences.
  • Network for Good: Provides fundraising software, resources, and training to help nonprofits raise funds and manage donor relationships.
  • GuideStar: Offers information on nonprofits, including financial data, mission statements, and impact measurement. It can help donors make informed giving decisions.

Create a process for onboarding new mentors to the program

Lastly, take time to ensure that mentors are prepared to answer questions from mentees and new volunteers by establishing an onboarding process. Starting a new volunteer job can be overwhelming, and it’s likely that new helpers are going to have many questions.

Kayla Matthews at Top Nonprofits says it’s important to be prepared not only to answer these questions, but to provide specific examples and advice. She suggests that current volunteers take the time to jot down the tactics and events that were most successful in the past. These insights can be used to support the questions and concerns of future volunteers.

Potential mentors should also be prepared to act as a liaison between the organization and the new volunteer. Michael Kimming, an intercultural trainer and coach, points out that facilitating communication is a core element of mentorship. This ensures the volunteer has everything they need to perform the job well. It also helps them feel more comfortable and confident in taking on their new responsibilities.

Kimming adds that a mentor can help volunteers create goals around what they’d like to learn during their time at the organization. Creating these intentions as a volunteer can help them stay motivated and committed. Then, at the end of the volunteer’s time, the mentor and mentee can look back at all they’ve accomplished together.

From inspiring personal connections between volunteers to elevating your leadership team with expert guidance, mentorship is vital to helping nonprofits thrive. By defining goals and creating a plan for how your mentorship program will work, you can create a culture of mentorship that inspires learning, collaboration and hard work.