In my opinion, having a mentor is the greatest way to learn. I mentor people. I have two mentors myself. My mentors have mentors! No one knows everything, and many things can’t be found in books or courses. Some things can only be learned from people who have experienced them themselves.
This holds true no matter your role, your organization type or your sector. Or even your experience. Although I’ve been in the not-for-profit sector for decades, there are still many, many things that I know little or nothing about. If I find I need to learn about them, my first task is always to look for a mentor.
Why a mentor?
Unlike courses or books, a mentor can provide you with the specific advice you need right when you need it. Rather than taking a course on recruiting volunteers, for example, when all you need to know at the moment is how to interview candidates, you can ask your mentor the exact questions you need answers for to let you continue on. It saves time, and it can give you insight to things that you may not have known you needed to think about.
They can do more than just advise you.
I can’t count the number of times I called up a mentor just to vent. Problems were happening and, while I knew how to fix them, I was just so frustrated that I needed to let it out. Seldom can we allow that kind of frustration out on our co-workers or supervisors – and certainly never on volunteers. Keeping it to ourselves, however, increases stress levels and can impact our health. Having someone to vent to who’s “been there, done that” can be a great relief. Your mentor can often help you see the issues more objectively, and thus they can feel less overwhelming.
Advice; a sympathetic ear; what else can a mentor do for you?
They can expand your network. This is especially valuable if you are new in your role or have recently moved into a different type of organization. A mentor who has been around for a while can introduce you to people who can advance your career, can sponsor you into private groups, and even be a job reference if you are in need of one.
Assuming that you’ve decided that a mentor is a good idea, who should you ask?
Take a look around your sector. Who is out there that you admire who is or has been doing the work that you’re doing? Choose someone that has more experience than you – at least in the particular area you want to grow in. I have had people mentor me who had far less overall experience than I have, but whose experience covered portions of the sector (like fundraising) to which I was completely new.
Make sure that they are someone who holds the same values as you do. Otherwise, their advice may run counter to what you’re comfortable with. If you don’t know their values, find out. Either ask them outright, or ask questions that would indicate how they view certain issues.
Once you’ve chosen someone, how do you get them to agree?
Easy. Ask them! Most people are honoured to be asked. If they have the time to spare, they are highly likely to agree.
Understand, there are two types of mentors; paid and unpaid. Both have their advantages and disadvantages.
The paid ones will be committed to meeting regularly, usually have significant amounts of experience, and often have a structure in place to ensure that you get everything you need. Downside, of course, is that you have to pay them.
Unpaid mentors, besides being free, are often people that you already have a connection with. This makes it easier to know their values and whether or not you’ll be a good match. The drawbacks are one: that they may not have had any experience mentoring before, so may expect you to lead the relationship; and two: that – because they are not being paid – other things may take priority over meeting with you.
The decision on which way to go depends on you.
Both ways are better than not having a mentor at all. After years of mentoring and being mentored, I would never now go without. Try it!