How to design and evaluate your mentoring program

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"Volumes have been written about how to design, administer, and evaluate a mentoring program, yet formal mentoring programs are not always successful and informal relationships may fail to meet their full potential" (Eshner and Murphy, 2011).

Good mentorship program design and matching is crucial to the effectiveness of mentorship relationships. Research by Ragins, Cotton and Miller (2000) found that program design has a direct impact on the mentee's:

  • Career commitment (commitment to working in a specific field/sector)
  • Job satisfaction
  • Satisfaction with opportunities for promotion
  • Organizational commitment
  • Satisfaction with procedural justice (how policies are implemented by the organization)
  • Organization-based self-esteem (self-esteem specific to their job and role with the organization)
  • Intentions to quit

Not only does good design lead to good outcomes, bad design can lead to worse outcomes than not having a mentorship program at all.

Goal setting

You can't manage what you don't measure. And you can't measure what you haven't articulated. Before you even begin to plan the logistics of your mentorship programming, have evaluation in mind. Evaluation is important for the longevity of your mentorship program, especially if there are forces from above that question the value of a mentorship program and the staff time dedicated to it.

If your overarching goal is "leadership development for succession planning", specific objectives might include:

  • A six-month average increase in response to the question "How long do you see yourself continuing to work for this organization?"
  • A 10 per cent increase in the proportion of employees who agree with the statement "I have the skill and knowledge required to excel at my job."
  • A 20 per cent increase in the proportion of employees who agree with the statement "I see opportunities to grow, learn and advance at this organization."

Notice that each of these objectives can be measured explicitly. While the overarching goal is more conceptual, the objectives can be measured in a survey or through interviews, ideally done before and after mentorship programming.

As described in an earlier CharityVillage® article, The Mentor Within, the Canadian Red Cross is building an evaluation process into the planning right from the outset. Their objectives will include a variety of long- and short-term outcomes, including job satisfaction and staff ownership over their own training and development.

Research by Ragins, Cotton, and Miller (2000) found that of the variety of potential goals for mentorship programs, those intended to help with career development and retention have been shown to be more effective than those with the purpose of organizational orientation and socialization. However, goals for your organization should suit your specific context.

Activity: Goals and objectives brainstorming

In Part 1 of this series, you were asked to identify reasons why a mentorship program might benefit your organization. Use those to outline overarching goals for your program. Do you want to increase retention of younger staff? Do you want to prepare your organization for a series of expected retirements over the next 10 years? Do you want to improve communication between departments?

Now, take those goals and outline specific objectives. Consider the following:

  • What will change?
  • How will you know it has changed?
  • How much do you hope it will change?

The basics of design

Does the program match involve-peers (same organizational level) or step-ahead pairs (mentors are at a more senior organizational level)? This will all depend on the mentorship programs goals. Peer mentorship programs have success with goals around socialization and cross-training. Step-ahead pairings have success with career development and industry introductions. Both can be effective, but require subtle differences in matching and training.

The Vancouver chapter of the Association of Fundraising Professionals sometimes matches those at similar levels in their careers, but who have different experience. "It doesn't have to be based on who's older, but who has an experience [the individuals are interested in]," explains Joanna Forbes, the organizer of AFP's mentorship program.

Is the program voluntary or not? Research has shown that each lead to similar levels of program effectiveness. If the program is mandatory for all newer staff or all staff seeking advancement opportunities in the organization, an equal number of self-aware senior staff or peer staff is required.

Good program design includes...

Facilitating trust and the sharing of experiences. Everything, from the promotion of the program, training materials, instructions for the pairs, and evaluation, should include a focus on the development of trust and sharing.

Attracting committed, self-aware mentors. Are the mentors positive, self-aware leaders who promote a culture of learning? As mentorship programs often serve a socialization function, obsolete and even destructive cultural norms (e.g., gossip, avoiding change, lines drawn between departments) could be reinforced with bad matches. The best matches will include self-aware mentors who understand their own preferences and how these might impact a mentor-mentee relationship.

The ability for mentees to have input into the matching process. The level of input can vary. Mentees might provide input into their learning expectations, the type of person they would like to be matched with, or even specific people they are interested in being matched with. This can happen through many processes. Will program participants take part in a mingling event to get to know one another in an informal setting first? Will they review the options for mentors and rank their preferences? Will program coordinators match them based on their learning outcomes?

A balance between similarities and differences between the mentor and mentee. While there should be enough difference in experience for learning to be able to happen, similarity in personality is important. Personality features include preference for introversion vs. extroversion, interest in talking about present detail vs. future opportunities, and a focus on problem identification vs. solution generation. If your organization has previously had staff complete psychographic assessments like the MBTI, these could possibly be factored into the matching process.

In general, mentees have been shown to have a higher satisfaction when they are more like their mentor (in personality, but also in gender, race and culture). But multiple similarities are not core to an effective match. Instead, providing the pair an opportunity to explore similarities (e.g., in hobbies, experiences, family situations) may prove just as effective.

The mentee and mentor are from different departments. As mentioned in Part 2, an organization should have more than one line of reporting if implementing an in-house mentorship program that relies completely on staff for involvement.

Training for the mentee and mentor. Many times mentorship programs leave the details of the relationship to the pair. Orientation to the program helps both the mentee and mentor understand their roles and increases the mentor's commitment to the program.

However, explicit expectations and considerations should be included in (separate) training sessions for each mentees and mentors. Separate training allows people to bring up concerns and questions that they might not feel comfortable doing in front of their matches. It also provides an opportunity to manage expectations about what the mentoring relationship will and will not do. Mentoring programs are not designed for mentees to find their ultimate and everlasting career guru.

Clear expectations around frequency of meetings. Clarity around frequency allows those with busy schedules to plan ahead and decreases the likelihood that mentees feel they are imposing on mentors.

Relationship framing. Meetings between mentees and mentors should go beyond an informal chat over coffee. Depending on the goals and objectives for your mentorship program and the learning interests of the mentee, potential conversation topics and questions should be provided to the pair, whether as part of training, or as tips shared throughout the mentorship cycle. Conversations can focus both on the mentees current situation and their future goals. Ann Rolfe of Mentoring Works suggests exploring questions related to:

  • Where am I now? (discussion of issues and opportunities with current work)
  • Where do I want to be? (learning and career goals)
  • How do I get there? (strategies to achieve these goals)
  • How am I doing? (life beyond of work),/li>

If the mentee described learning goals in their mentorship program application, these goals are a great starting point.

Risk management planning. Because conversations between mentees and mentors often leave the realm of work duties, mentors should understand the limits of their role and know when to refer the mentees to other supports, including the HR department, Employee Assistance Programs (counselling) or other professionals. Talk to your HR department for more information about additional help in this area.

Planning for matches that go sideways. Keep in mind that bad and even marginally effective matches can be worse that none at all. What are the triggers that will lead you to terminate a match? What questions can you ask that will help you know the right time to close a match?

Specific outreach to encourage involvement by women and ethnoculturally diverse employees. As mentioned in Part 1, those that are least likely to proactively seek out a mentorship relationship are often those that could benefit most from the relationship. By actively seeking out participation among specific groups, a well-designed mentorship program can avoid reinforcing existing inequalities within the organization and the sector.

Activity: Predicting road bumps

Considering what goes into good program design, what challenges might your organization face? Based on other internal activities that have been implemented in the past, what considerations might you need to pay particular attention to?


Evaluation should be done from two different angles. Outcome evaluation takes place at the end of a cycle to determine the success of reaching specific goals. Process evaluation is done on an ongoing basis to make incremental improvements throughout the cycle.

Outcome evaluation
Outcome evaluation is easy when goals and objectives have been articulated from the very beginning. However, outcome evaluation can be sticky. Very personal or confidential information can be revealed — those with intentions to quit may not report their intentions accurately. In some cases, having an external evaluator who would provide only aggregate results is more appropriate. Another option includes using an online survey tool, though some employees may still be concerned for their privacy.

Process evaluation
Process evaluation usually looks more at how the program is being delivered as opposed to what the outcomes of the program are. Another way to describe it is "monitoring your program". Process evaluation is most helpful when done throughout the entire process rather than at the end, so that small tweaks can be done along the way to continually improve the mentorship program. Process evaluation at its simplest can involve a reflection of the group leading the process ("How do we feel things are going?") and a check-in with the individuals who have been matched ("How is the match working for you? Is it a good use of your time? Any frustrations?"). Not only is satisfaction about the match important; satisfaction with the delivery of the program, including training and ongoing check-ins, is also important to measure.

Potential sticky situations

As you are evaluating the program throughout the cycle, keep these sticky and unique situations in mind.

Are mentees and mentors aware of the full impact of their relationship? Sometimes positive effects of mentorship take place outside of in-person meetings. The mentor may serve a protector role for the mentee among management. The advice of the mentor may sink in much later without the mentor knowing. Likewise, negative effects of mentorship can be hidden. A mentee may not bring up dissatisfaction with a match for fear of reprisal or awkward work relationships. Encourage matches to discuss how the relationship has benefitted each other beyond their scheduled meetings.

Have people changed positions? Have those formerly in different lines of reporting now work in the same department? Be sure that the considerations for good program design continue to be upheld throughout a mentorship cycle.

Are individuals feeling intimidated by their matches? Do they feel like meetings are an inconvenience to their match? More senior staff usually leave the initiative to the junior staff, but junior staff may hesitate to take that initiative. Encourage open communication between the two so that mentorship meetings actually get arranged. Be explicit about who should be proactive and how. One of the biggest pieces of feedback that Andrea Verwey receives from mentors in IABC's program is that mentees don't take initiative.

Should any matches be terminated? Remember that bad and even marginally effective matches can be worse that none at all. How are your matches feeling about their relationship? Could anything improve the current match? If not, how can you facilitate an "amicable break-up"? Bad matches usually come down to a bad fit, not bad people. When closing a match, have the program organizers take the responsibility for not having planned the best fitting match.

Activity: Mentorship program "pre-mortem"

A pre-mortem is a hypothetical post-mortem, done before a project's implementation. Imagine that your mentorship program has existed for a year and you are reviewing its successes and failures.

  • What went well? Why?
  • What didn't go well? Why?
  • What could you do during the planning stage to help encourage things to go well?
  • What could you do during the planning stage to avoid potential problems?
  • What could you do throughout the cycle to help keep you on track?

When reviewing both the goals for a mentorship program and the eventual outcomes, realize that one possible objective may be to no longer need a mentorship program. Andrea Verwey explains,"A good organization is one in which a formal program almost becomes redundant."

Has your organization implemented a mentorship program? Share your challenges or successes with the author at

Additional resources

Creating Successful Mentoring Programs: a Catalyst Guide. New York, NY: Catalyst.

Mentoring Canada

Mentoring Works

Zarinpoush, F. (2006). Project Evaluation for Nonprofit Organizations. Toronto, ON: Imagine Canada.

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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