Rasheeda Childress is an associate editor at Associations Now.
With members seeking help advancing their careers, associations are creating rich mentorship programs that assist students and early-career professionals by tapping into the knowledge and generosity of experienced members.
As associations seek ways to help members navigate their careers and respective industries, many are turning to mentoring programs to respond to an increasingly critical need. But while the demand for mentoring is common across associations, there’s no standard template for a successful program.
“It is always important for organizations looking to implement one of these programs to start from the place of, what goals are we trying to meet?” says Allison McWilliams, assistant vice president of mentoring and alumni personal and career development at Wake Forest University.
For many associations, the goal of a mentoring program is to bring new members into the fold, while allowing longtime members to pass on knowledge. Carol Cohen, director of membership development at the American Nurses Association, said its mentoring program works because it fulfills member needs.
“The goal of the program is to match up mentors and mentees at different stages in the career,” Cohen says. “This is based on research with our members. Early years in nursing can be very stressful.”
Mentoring is useful to a wide swath of ANA members because they transition often. “In nursing, a lot of times, you’re going back to school to get another degree or a new certification or moving into another role,” Cohen says. “Many of our pairs were people who weren’t new to the profession but looking to move to the next step or navigating a new role.”
Mentoring programs run the gamut—some connect new members with industry veterans, while others help midcareer and transitioning professionals—so it can be difficult to figure out what will work best. What are the keys to creating top-notch programs? Here, several association professionals who have helped build successful programs share their experiences and offer proven strategies to help others tap into the magic of mentoring.
For an association mentoring program to be successful, it needs both formal structure and a set time frame for the relationship. “We always aim for six months at a minimum, and a year as an outside [limit],” McWilliams says.
An endpoint helps participants feel the program is accessible, rather than an onerous commitment, and it allays concerns about being stuck in an ill-fitting pairing. “There is a point where you should have an opportunity to close out those relationships, and if they want to continue on, they can,” McWilliams says.
Creating a structured mentoring program requires significant staff time, so associations shouldn’t just add it to an employee’s plate as an extra responsibility. “Mentoring is a high-resource initiative,” McWilliams says. “It doesn’t have to cost a lot of money. It does require a lot of time and attention.”
How much time and attention? That depends on the stage of the program. “Once the program gets up and rolling, you don’t have to pay attention every single day,” McWilliams says. “But as you are rolling the program out, finding the mentors, doing the matching, and doing the training—that is going to be a significant amount of time. Then, there is the need for the ongoing check-ins, whether it’s by email or by phone. It does require an extensive amount of time. I advise people to start small, get big wins, and grow strategically from there.”
One of the first steps in building a mentoring program is identifying participants. Most have an application process, including the Illinois Park and Recreation Association’s ProConnect program, which puts mentoring teams in triads that include a young, midcareer, and seasoned professional.
“We treat our mentors and mentees the same,” IPRA Executive Director Debbie Trueblood, CAE, says. “You have to apply at all levels. We don’t baby the mentors. We don’t say, ‘What you have to offer is so important that you don’t have to apply or attend.’ All three of those people are learning.”
Programs also vary on whether they involve one-on-one mentorship or a model where a mentor works with multiple mentees. When ANA relaunched its program last year, Membership Marketing Specialist Krishen Narcelles was initially concerned that they’d end up with too many mentees and not enough mentors. If that turned out to be the case, ANA decided it would reach out to staffers who were nurses and their state associations.
“We didn’t need that,” Narcelles says. “By the end, we had 919 mentees and 853 mentors. We let the mentors decide if they want one or two mentees.”
Once associations have participants, some of the most time-consuming work gets underway: matching. The IPRA and ANA programs have staff read applications and match participants. However, ANA found that the process was too unwieldy given the program’s size and will use computer matching next time—something that the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association does for its Student to Empowered Professional (STEP) mentoring program.
For the past 14 years, ASHA staff has matched mentor and mentee applicants. This year, they used a software platform that provided a percentage to show how closely mentee and mentor applications matched up. Rather than staff doing the pairing based on the highest-percentage match, STEP’s system showed mentees several high-percentage matches and let them choose the mentor they thought they’d connect best with.
“A lot of students really valued being able to select a mentor,” says Andrea “Deedee” Moxley, ASHA’s associate director of multicultural resources.
What is really unique about our program is that community-building aspect.
— Sarah McIntosh, Young Nonprofit Professional Network DC
These days, mentoring can take place in the virtual world, the real world, or both, but how should an association choose? For most, member logistics determine the answer.
“We have members in over 130 countries; about 40 percent of our members reside outside the United States,” says Chris McEntee, FASAE, executive director of the American Geophysical Union. “It is very difficult for the early-careers [and] the student scientists to travel as much as the senior scientists.”
AGU has several mentoring programs, including its Mentoring Network, which virtually links two senior scientists with six mentees. While the remote connection meets members where they are, the approach has challenges.
“One is time zone changes,” McEntee says. “If you have a group who wants to meet at noon, and you have individuals who are in China, it’s midnight there.”
While online mentoring makes sense for AGU, some members still want that in-person connection. McEntee says that mentor-mentee groups often get together at AGU’s annual meeting.
IPRA hosts five events, including a volunteer project, throughout the program year where the ProConnect triads come together. Between these meetings, participants are encouraged to communicate online and meet up in person.
Like IPRA, the Young Nonprofit Professional Network DC is geographically focused, allowing more in-person interaction. “What is really unique about our program is that community-building aspect,” says Sarah McIntosh, YNPNDC director of programs. “We want to create community among the whole cohort of pairs and provide opportunities for networking.” YNPNDC host multiple in-person sessions where all mentoring pairs gather and take part in professional development and networking, in addition to one-on-one mentor meetings.
Once a mentoring program rolls out, the work is not done. It’s now time to monitor and assess its effectiveness. “I recommend doing a midway check-in point and an end-of-program assessment,” McWilliams says. “These are the goals, this is what we hope people achieve; now, let’s assess if those goals were met.”
Melanie Johnson, ASHA membership program manager, notes that STEP uses an online platform that allows mentors and mentees to communicate and staff to oversee the program. “We are able to see what the mentoring pairs are doing,” Johnson said. “We can see how many communications have gone on between the pairs and who is not active.” When staff notices teams aren’t communicating, they check in to find out if the pair simply prefers to communicate outside the platform, or if something has gone wrong.
“Ghosting is real, and it happens on the professional level,” ASHA’s Moxley says. “People just disappear and don’t respond. The platform is helping us to stay on top of it.” By catching the problem early, staff can pair the ghosted participants with new partners, so they can still benefit from the program.
Jessica Soule, YNPNDC’s mentoring program manager, says this is why it can be advantageous for associations to have a staff member who can help foster the mentor-mentee dynamic. “It’s easy for us to forget that these are new relationships,” she says. “How great would it be any time you are building a new relationship to have someone to talk to? Here, there is someone to help each party be the mentor or mentee that they should be.”
While mentees and mentors both benefit from the advice, friendships, and career opportunities that often come as a result of these relationships, another goal for many associations is to reinforce the value of membership.
“I really hope that this can become a really strong hook for membership, not just in getting people to join, but also getting them to retain,” ANA’s Cohen says. “Ultimately, that’s why we’re doing this: to give them something of value that is exclusive to members.”