Chapter 2: Effective Mentoring

Chapter 2: Effective Mentoring

Chapter 1 introduced the concept of mentoring for organizations. A capacity building program based on this concept requires consideration of the characteristics of effective mentors, as well as the key practices that contribute to useful mentoring. This chapter summarizes our observations based on our experience as mentors and managers of mentors.        

Steps in The Mentoring Process

The mentoring for organizations process includes the following steps:

  • Learning about the organization’s history, leaders, community, and cultural context.
  • Investing time in building trust, relationships, and agreements.
  • Facilitating organizational self-assessment and reflection (see below for more on this).
  • Helping the group identify and prioritize capacity building needs.
  • Developing capacity building plans.
  • Helping to identify consultants and other resources to support the implementation of the capacity building plan; bridging communication with consultants, if needed.
  • Communicating monthly (or more often, as needed), to monitor progress, address questions, navigate problems, bring an outside perspective to think through and evaluate options, connect to resources, assess the effectiveness of the mentoring relationship, etc.
  • As needed, facilitating board or staff discussions to help make critical decisions for the organization.
  • Reviewing documents, funding applications and reports. If the mentor is working in partnership with a foundation, ensure that grant guidelines are clear and deadlines are met.
  • Strengthening the organization’s network and group of allies. Bringing groups together to build relationships, share resources, and experiences, and learn from each other.

Values for Effective Mentors

  • Respect for the intelligence, experience and knowledge of the groups being mentored.
  • Commitment to the success of others.
  • Humility.
  • Trustworthiness.
  • Honesty in representing their knowledge and skills and comfortable saying “I don’t know,” when warranted.
  • Integrity.
  • Life-long commitment to learning and critical thinking.

Required Skill, Knowledge, Attitudes

  • Willingness to share skills, knowledge, and expertise.
  • A view of the mentor/organization relationship as a partnership for mutual learning.
  • Ability to support organizations in achieving their own goals and sustainability as they define it.
  • Willingness to teach what they know and to adapt to the organization’s circumstances, learning styles, and stated goals and aspirations.
  • A positive attitude, with the ability to be a positive role model.
  • Reliability in meeting deadlines and fulfilling promises.
  • Personal attributes required to be successful as workers in their field and to serve the community with authenticity and commitment.
  • Generosity in sharing resources.
  • Facilitation skills, with ability to focus dialogues that result in solutions and to navigate difficult conversations.
  • Respectful of confidentiality.

Essential Practices of Effective Mentors

The methods used by the mentors to establish strong partnerships with the organizations revealed a set of essential practices and lessons learned. The most effective mentors:

  • Learn about the groups and their leaders. Guidance and support need to be relevant to the organization. Knowing the organization and its leaders, its history and experiences, and its cultural context enables the mentor to provide useful direction and helps avoid “one-size-fits-all” approaches.
  • Build trust, maintain confidentiality. Mentored leaders and teams will sometimes need to share serious concerns and conflicts within the organization or among partners. A trusting relationship will create the environment for candid conversations to happen. Organizations and leaders may share sensitive information, both personal and about the organization. The mentor must maintain confidentiality and only share the information with others when expressly authorized by those who provided it. In circumstances when the mentor feels ethically compelled to share the information, it should be openly discussed with the person or team mentored.
  • Foster independence and self-reliance. The ultimate goal is to build the capacity of the leaders to manage and sustain the organization in the long-term, with independence and confidence. This will be possible if leaders develop critical thinking skills and learn how to make informed, thoughtful and collaborative decisions.
  • Support the development of leaders and leadership teams. The aim is to strengthen their professional knowledge and skills,so that the capacity and sustainability of the organization can be enhanced.
  • Start where they are. It’s important to respect that organizations need to start building capacity from where they are in their development, and the leadership will decide their direction and capacity building goals.

Potential Challenges

Building organizational capacity can be challenging for any organization regardless of their stage of development, but it is particularly difficult for small or nascent organizations without the depth of experience to manage change and growth. Mentors need to bring the maturity and skill, along with an understanding of common challenges, keeping in mind that:

  • Capacity building might be a new concept.  Many grassroots groups or emerging organizations are unfamiliar with this type of assistance. They need support to understand how to assess, plan and engage with resources – and they need sufficient time for this.
  • Building capacity takes time. Groups and funders often underestimate how long it takes and how much time is required to learn and implement changes. Often, priorities and steps must be added and/or reordered to accomplish a specific goal. These changes can be challenging for the organization and the mentor, as they must both devote more energy, time, and resources to accomplish a goal than initially expected.
  • Time is limited. Some of the groups may not have staff.  Volunteer leaders or board members who take on staff roles may have jobs, families to care for, and other demanding responsibilities.
  • Needing to start where they are. Each organization starts from a different stage of development, so flexibility in testing different strategies and approaches is needed for the strategies to be effective and relevant to the organization.
  • Communication and access to resources need a “bridge.” Small communities may have few consultants who understand small or grassroots organizational development and who can help guide an organization that works within a cultural context. It is important for the mentor to, at times, be a bridge, translator, and interpreter between the organization, consultants and other TA providers.

Matching the Mentor with an Organization

A successful mentorship relationship requires alignment of the mentor’s personality, values and skill with the organization’s culture and stage of development. In selecting a mentor, the organization or funding partner must look for both personal attributes and technical expertise that will be appropriate for the organization’s needs, such as:

  • Relationship building skills: Respect, collegiality, communication style that is compatible with the organization’s culture and “personality.”
  • Values: Honesty, trustworthiness, authentic commitment to the success of others, with an ability to convey these in ways that are meaningful to the organization.
  • Technical skills: Organizational development, leadership, adaptive capacity, change in areas that the organization needs, along with a commitment to their own professional development of these skills.
  • Experience: Internal & external management, community engagement, use and identification of resources that match the organization’s needs.
  • Approach to the work: A supportive partner, constantly learning; brings a broad perspective for how to support the whole organization; understands that the support needs to be contextual: “one solution does not fit every problem, because each leader and organization is unique, and circumstances are always changing.” [1]
  • Flexibility: Able to adapt to the needs, developmental stage, culture, and circumstances of the group.

Developing New Mentors in the Community

Personal attributes and technical expertise can be learned and developed over time. A mentor development process begins with the following steps:

  • Assess the potential mentor’s skills and experience. (Download the Mentoring Skills Checklist.)
  • Create a Mentor Development Plan, based on the improvement areas identified through the Mentoring Skills Checklist.
  • Provide training, coaching and support, particularly in consultation with an experienced mentor (e.g., shadow the experienced mentor; work as a mentorship team)
  • Emphasize in the training the need to develop and use capacity building resource selection criteria to determine which resources would best align with the organization’s needs
  • Share a list of recommended resources to enable the mentors to develop their library of capacity

Chapter 3 focuses on organizational self-assessment, an important early step in the mentorship and capacity improvement planning.