Developing a mentoring program at your nonprofit

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“Mentoring can contribute to employee motivation, job performance, and retention rates. However, other important benefits are often overlooked. These are related to the long-term health of the organization as a social system. One such contribution is that mentoring provides a structured system for strengthening and assuring the continuity of organizational culture. The existence of a strong corporate culture that provides members with a common value base, and with implicit knowledge of what is expected of them and what they in turn can expect from the organization, can be vital to organizational success and effectiveness.” (Wilson and Elman, 1990)

When one pictures a mentorship program, an image of a young, new staff member sharing a conversation with an experienced, wise, senior member might come to mind. But mentorship programs have evolved and expanded beyond that traditional model. Both matching decisions and communication methods have expanded to include mentorship between peers at similar levels in an organization, mentorship in triads or groups, and mentorship facilitated completely online. However, one common thread ties all of these different programs: relationships that involve trust and the sharing of experience.

Why a mentorship program?

The idea to implement a formal mentorship program often stems from one of three situations:

  • The idea originates because someone suggested “hey, we could/should have a mentorship program” without a purpose in mind.
  • A problem has arisen, such as issues with staff retention or a concern for succession planning.
  • The organization is taking on more of an engagement orientation, paying more attention to activities around staff development and leadership training.

The first two situations do not provide strong foundations to mentorship program development. The first sets up a program without a purpose, and one that is not likely to be supported with staff time. The second might indicate other root issues at the organization (management styles, etc.). The engagement orientation is founded on the strengths and opportunities of the organization and its individuals.

Engagement is the process of creating an environment that encourages people to feel, think, and act in ways that lead to positive organizational outcomes.

Positive organizational outcomes facilitated by mentorship programs are often the result of positive individual outcomes among participants. Specific examples include the orientation and socialization of new employees; career, skill and leadership development and increased visibility among senior management.

In Elisa Birnbaum’s article The Mentor Within, staff from Canadian Red Cross, YWCA Metro Vancouver, and Vantage Point describe career advancement, skill development, and leadership training as key benefits of a mentoring relationship. Resulting organizational outcomes include:

  • effective talent management (recruitment, orientation and retention of ‘star’ employees)
  • employee versatility through cross-training
  • increased inter-departmental communication
  • succession planning information

In additional to the benefits of mentorship programs for more junior staff and the organization as a whole, there are often unexpected benefits for mentors and senior management:

  • improving management and leadership by sharing mentorship advice more broadly with direct reports
  • gaining a reputation for developing talent
  • being able to articulate issues in the organization that haven’t been noticed or described by management
  • gaining a sense of workplace mood
  • acquiring insight into intergenerational working styles

Wilson and Elman, researchers on mentorship, describe some of these opportunities: “Mentors in their occasional role as deep sensors of workforce mood...can transfer early warning signals to upper management long before news of such trouble becomes common knowledge...or manifests itself through reduced levels of performance.”

Finally, a sector-wide benefit of formalized mentorship programs is to help the sector move towards employment equity. Those that are least likely to proactively seek out a mentorship relationship are often those that could benefit most. The 2011 Canadian Nonprofit Sector Compensation and Benefits Study, recently published by CharityVillage®, found that men out-earn women at almost all organizational levels. Research published by the World Economic Forum found that lack of networks and mentoring and lack of role models were the two largest reported barriers to women's rise to positions of senior leadership in Canadian companies. In a sector where women outnumber men and where nonprofit organizational leadership does not represent the ethnocultural diversity of Canadians, meaningful mentorship program planning is even more important.

Activity: Why are you thinking of a mentoring program?

Of the benefits described above, which resonate with you the most? What would a mentorship program at your organization help solve? What would a mentorship program contribute to your organization’s strengths? What would be the purpose of a mentorship program at your organization? How could it benefit you and the people you work with?

The importance of strong leadership

By now you may be thinking a mentorship program is a great idea for your organization. But what if you’re a program assistant who has only been with the organization for six months? Who should be responsible for an effort to implement a mentorship program?

The true answer is: many people. But generally having one person being the driver and advocate for such a program is needed — specifically someone at the level of senior management. This person does not need to be the director of HR. While HR staff will and should absolutely be involved in designing and delivering the program, they don’t need to be the face of it. More and more innovative organizations are shifting towards a culture of talent management, in which the responsibility for engagement and retention efforts shifts from HR to all managers across the organization. These efforts might include: developing learning plans with staff; creating learning and development opportunities; and, yes, planning mentorship programs.

But being a senior manager is not enough. For the program and its participants to get the most out of the program, the person to drive the creation of a mentorship program should also be self-aware and promote a culture of learning. This is true of potential mentors as well; the program will need experienced staff with these attributes.

But how can you recognize such people?

Self-aware leaders can describe their personal strengths and weaknesses. They understand how their personality, their preferences, and their communication style impacts others. Self-aware people know how they work best, what motivates them, what frustrates them. They also go further than knowing, and actively change their working styles in order to get the best out of others.

Leaders who promote a culture of learning are those that seek out opportunities for continuous improvement — of themselves, others, and the organization. They actively encourage input and perhaps even create formal spaces (meetings, time) for innovation and creativity. They are curious about new ways of doing things, not fearful. They trust in and support others to try...and sometimes to fail, understanding that the growth and learning that comes from failure.

Things you won’t hear from this sort of leader include “but we’ve never done it that way”, “we tried that 10 years ago and it didn’t work” and “but that’s not in my/your job description”. They will not keep trying the same thing over and over again, hoping for different results.

Hopefully you have people like this at your organization (and if not — why are you working there?!) If you’re unsure or there are forces working against the implementation of a mentorship program, there are always workarounds (see Part 2 for alternatives to formal mentorship programs).

Activity: Who can you identify at your organization?

Based on the description of the type of leadership required for mentorship program, who comes to mind at your organization? Stop by their office, book a meeting with them, or forward this article, letting them know that when you read about self-aware leaders who promote a culture of learning, you thought of them. Tell them why you think a mentorship program would benefit the organization. At the Canadian Red Cross, which is currently building a national mentorship program, the mentorship program was sparked after comments from younger staff. People from all levels of an organization can get the ball rolling.

While solid leadership behind the program’s implementation is important, a team of individuals is required to make it all happen. While HR is an obvious choice, membership on an implementation team is in itself a fantastic learning opportunity for other staff members interested in expanding their skills and experience beyond their job description. Much work of the mentorship program of IABC, a professional association for professional communicators, is done by many. “Matching involves the committee getting together with a lot of takeout food,” explains Andrea Verwey, the program’s organizer. IABC also involves senior leaders in their organization, who check-in with matched pairs as the mentorship cycle progresses.


The timeline of a mentorship program’s development and implementation can vary — especially with respect to the size of an organization, the openness of the organization to change and innovate, and the ability to find a person to drive and advocate for such a program.

Planning may take up to six months, recruitment and matching another three months, and 6-12 months for the mentorship match cycle itself. This timeline can be condensed if key people have dedicated time to work on the project, interest already exists, and senior management is supportive.

Activity: Where are you and what do you need to do next?

The timeline above include many steps required to make a mentorship program happen. Where is your organization? What is the very next thing you should do to get the ball rolling? Send an email? Stop by someone’s office? Write out your thoughts about why mentorship could do for your organization?


According to a 2011 Harris/Decima poll conducted for, 38 per cent of young people and 47 per cent of baby boomers wished their employers provided more mentoring. The question for you and your organization is how you can make that happen.

Watch for the next article in the series, which will address the topic of organizational readiness.

Trina Isakson (@telleni) is principal of 27 Shift, where she helps organizations tap into the passion within the next generation of engaged citizens. She plays flag football, likes chocolate, and lives in Vancouver, BC.

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