The Pitfalls of Running a Mentoring Program

Thinking of starting a mentoring program in your nonprofit? Avoid these pitfalls so you can build a successful capacity building program.

The Pitfalls of Running a Mentoring Program
6 mins read

The most important pitfalls to avoid when identifying and working with mentors.

So, you want to support the next generation of nonprofit, business, or community leaders, and you’re considering launching or expanding a mentoring program?

Well, it’s not as easy as you might think… at least to do right. But the good news is there are some tips and tricks of the trade that will enable you to have drastically more impact and to work smarter instead of harder. Or on the flipside, there are some common potholes, pitfalls, or “worst practices” that plague many well-intentioned groups in your position, and I’m here to point them out to you so you can fulfill your lofty capacity building visions.

I’ve led the Mentor Capital Network (MCN) for 15 years. During that time, I’ve engaged more than 1,100 people to mentor more than 1,600 for-profit social entrepreneurs. And, more importantly, we’ve studied more than 8,000 interactions between them in detail. Regardless of whether you’re in a for-profit or nonprofit venture, the same basic principles of mentoring apply.

Mentoring means different things to different people, but for our purposes we believe that mentorship is about connecting someone who is in a position to provide advice over time to someone they can help spot and adjust patterns in their work. The advice that follows is within this context, specifically applied to adults working together.

Here are the most important pitfalls to avoid when identifying and working with mentors.

Failing to Set Clear Expectations

Never ask someone “Do you want to be a mentor?” Like I just said, that means different things to just about everyone. Some mentoring programs involve a great deal of time, while others may be a one-time gig. Be specific and detail precisely what’s involved. For our program, we start with “Can you review two business plans over thirty days two months from now?” To which they’ll either say yes, no, or ask me in two months. Only after both sides know exactly what’s involved should you connect the two and suggest a call or in-person meeting. That way, nobody’s time is wasted. And while you’re at it, don’t forget to also ensure you’re crystal clear what both parties hope to get out of the relationship. If you can, spend your first meeting discussing shared goals.

Mandating Matches

Different strokes for different folks means that not everybody is compatible. So, why would you force two people to work together when there’s no chemistry, or they have vastly different communication styles? Expose both mentors and mentees to lots of options and then focus on the matches where they select one another. Mentoring involves getting adults who aren’t (usually) getting paid to spend time together to want to spend time together. Create a light-touch situation where the mentor and mentee can tackle a small project together to see if they can respect each other’s time and skills.

Focusing on Gray Hair vs. Birds of a Feather

I’ve seen way too many people assume that age is the same thing as wisdom. Remember the 8,000+ interactions we tracked? Well, I can tell you that while older people (and lawyers) are slightly better at spotting folks who will fail, they’re not better at spotting who will prosper. The only group that did spot the rock stars? People working on the same problems. Try to match people working on the same issues, but not competing for the same dollars or customers.

All Advice Is Not Equal

I’ve seen a lot of mentors lump all advice they give into the same category. To improve retention and usefulness, we encourage the leaders we engage to break things down into three categories for their mentees:

  • Fact downloads. This is just information for the moment, and people don’t necessarily retain it, although they will follow it. My accountant tells me to do a thing, and I do it. It’s not mentoring, and unless mentors take the time to explain how tactical advice fits into the big picture, mentees likely won’t remember it the next time it comes up.
  • Expertise that needs certification. A leader is usually good at something. Sometimes they think that means they’re good at a lot of things, which may not be the case. And sometimes they may appear to be good at everything because they are the leader. (That’s a whole article in and of itself.) If you’re having a conversation about such an area, ask the mentee who they consider relevant experts, so you’ve got a baseline to present your information from.
  • Areas where the mentee engages and receives. This is the sweet spot. Find a topic where the mentee cares about the outcome and is engaged but is also open to taking direction. For example, some executive directors I know care about how their organization is marketed and want input but know they’re not the best people to execute it.

Have you been a mentor or been mentored in your career? What has worked for you, from either the mentee or mentor side of things? Let me know below in the comments.

About the Author

Ian Fisk has managed the mentor capital network for 15 years, connecting thousands of social entrepreneurs to mentors and advisers. He has helped to found more than a dozen enterprises, some for-profit, some non-profit, and some non-profit on purpose.

Articles on Blue Avocado do not provide legal representation or legal advice and should not be used as a substitute for advice or legal counsel. Blue Avocado provides space for the nonprofit sector to express new ideas. Views represented in Blue Avocado do not necessarily express the opinion of the publication or its publisher.

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