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How to Start a Mentorship Program for Your Community

Ready to start a mentorship program for your community? Our comprehensive guide has everything you need to know to get started and make an impact.
26 min read
Feb 22, 2023

Shivani Shah

Guest Writer

The roots of mentorship run deep — all the way to ancient Greece.

In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor was not just a concept but a character, a trusted friend whom Odysseus leaves his son Telemachus with while he fights the Trojan War. But it’s the Greek Goddess Athena who embodies the mentor figure as we know it today — she disguises herself as Mentor and offers guidance and wisdom to Telemachus on his journey to find Odysseus.

Those are some big sandals to fill.

The mentors of the modern world may be mortal, but the principles of mentorship remain the same: a mentor offers guidance and support as their mentees learn and grow on their (professional) journeys.

And a community — especially a Community of Practice — can offer its members the network, connections, and support they need to build strong mentoring relationships.

“Communities of Practice gather people who are often in an emerging area or discipline, and so it wasn’t possible for the more experienced members to have mentorship,” says Erik Martin

“There just weren't enough people when they were starting out in their careers. They want to give new people coming into the field advice, guidance, and all the things you'd get from a mentorship that they didn't have themselves.”

Does this mean that every community should start a mentorship program? Izzy Ortiz advises first digging deep to learn whether it’s what your community wants — and needs. 

“We often want to just create a bunch of events, programs, initiatives, and we don't even ask the community if they actually need this resource,” says Izzy. “Whether you do it as a survey or poll, get that data to ensure that this is something you should move forward with.”

Ready to get started? We asked experts who run community mentorship programs to share their experiences and tips on everything from setting goals to measuring your program’s impact.

👉 Find out more about the role and benefits of mentorship in community.

Having a clear mission statement and purpose for your mentorship program is like having a roadmap for a road trip. If you know where you're headed and why, you can stay on track and make the most of the journey, even when things get bumpy. 

Defining them from the get go will help you set your goals for your program and ensure that it aligns with the objectives of your community and business (if your community is tied to one).

Erik Martin says specificity is key when setting up your program.

“Everyone needs mentors, but when you're creating and running a mentorship program, you want to be as specific as possible and not try to be all things to all people. When you have programs that don't have a specific goal, it makes the matching more challenging,” he says.

“It helps set expectations, it helps focus. And it may help in finding the right people on both the mentor and mentee sides.”

Though they go hand-in-hand, your mission statement and purpose will answer two different things about your program. 

Define your purpose

Your purpose focuses on the benefits or outcomes for participants — why are you running this program for them? What do you hope they achieve from it?

Outline your purpose: As Simon Sinek said, start with why: why is the program important and what’s the intended outcome?

Define your mission statement

Your mission statement focuses on your program’s goals and will answer the following:

  • What your program offers
  • Who it's for
  • How you’ll get there

Articulate the mission: Once you know why you’re running a mentorship program, focus on what you’ll do to achieve the outcome. Write a clear and concise statement that summarizes the overall goal of your mentorship program, keeping in mind the ‘what’, ‘who’, and ‘how’.

The Collab Lab has a clear mission statement that outlines all these aspects of their mentorship program:

  • The Collab Lab increases access to web development jobs (what) 
  • for early-career developers and, in particular, people in under-represented groups in tech (who) 
  • by providing experiential skills training in software team collaboration and career management (how).

Their purpose? To combat gatekeeping in tech, says Co-Founder Stacie Taylor-Cima.

Set your goals

When it comes to goal setting, think SMART: specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound. This framework will help you stay on track and measure the impact and success of your program (more on this later).

Scott Baldwin, Head of Community at Productboard, says setting SMART goals helped his team quickly see how their program was succeeding. 

“Our initial goal was to get a certain percentage of our community more involved and engaged with other community members,” he says. “We quickly succeeded in that during our first cohort. Setting a targeted number helped us see where we were succeeding and what we needed to do more or let go of completely.”

Already started your mentorship program without setting your goals first? There's always an opportunity to correct the course and go in once again with a little more direction. You can also change your goals to align with changes in the program itself. That’s what Areej AbuAli, Founder of the Women in Tech SEO community, did for their mentorship program. 

“In the first cohort, we paired up lots of people based on SEO skills, but something about it didn't feel right,” says Areej. “We received feedback from our mentors that it felt like a training course as opposed to mentorship. So from the second cohort onwards, we've kept it strictly focused on soft skills. Things like leadership, strategy, public speaking, etc... Even though we're a community of women in tech SEO, we want to ensure that the program is more mentorship-led as opposed to training-led.” 

By defining your mission statement and purpose and setting specific goals, you'll give your mentorship program the direction and focus it needs to succeed.

Now that you’ve got the ‘why’ for your mentorship program, it’s time to think about ‘who’. Who will this program benefit the most? Who in your community can you invite to take part or apply, either as a mentor or a mentee?

The objectives you’ve set can help you decide who to enroll in your mentorship program. Having intentional limitations on who can participate helps ensure the best outcome for mentors and mentees and, ultimately, the program’s success.

Define the characteristics mentors and mentees should have

These can encompass a host of things, depending on your goals:

  • Hard skills such as coding, UX design, data analysis, etc. For mentors, you’d look at the skills you want them to have. For mentees, it would be the skills the program can help them develop.
  • Soft skills such as teamwork and collaboration, self-management, adaptability, leadership skills, etc.
  • Tangibles such as years of experience, qualifications, title, and location.

No matter what your program’s goals are, a good mentor should be trustworthy, reliable, and able to communicate and adapt to the mentee’s needs. Mentees, meanwhile, should be ready to share their challenges, open to receiving feedback, and committed to learning.

Create personas for both mentors and mentees

An optional — but helpful — step is to create personas or fictional profiles to give you a clearer picture of who would get the most benefit from the program. Your mentorship program personas will delve into a subset of your community and help you understand which type of member your program is for. For mentor personas, it can also help you think about how to get mentors on board. 

“Personas will never be perfect, but it’s a good exercise to help you think about who is someone that actually exists and that you know of, that is close to this theoretical persona,” says Erik Martin. “If you were to ask them to be a mentor, how would you convince them to participate? What would they be able to offer and want out of it?”

Adapt the criteria as your program matures

If your program goals change with each cohort, so should your criteria for who’s eligible to participate. 

You'll attract potential mentors and mentees whose skills, experience, and asks align with the program’s current goals. This will help you create a more personalized and effective mentoring experience that will help mentors and mentees thrive and boost the success of the program as well.

The most traditional (and well-known) mentor-mentee relationship is where an experienced professional (the mentor) works with someone newer in the field (the mentee). But that format isn’t your only option. Depending on your purpose and goals, group mentor programs or peer-to-peer mentor programs might be valid options to consider for your program.

One-to-one mentorship

As the name implies, a mentee is paired with a single mentor during the program. The one-to-one relationship means the mentor can provide personalized support and guidance, and it can give the pair the time and space to really get to know each other.

While a mentee has only one mentor during the program, the mentor can have more than one mentee if they opt to be paired with multiple people — but they’ll have individual, one-to-one sessions with each mentee.

Group mentorship

Unlike in one-to-one mentorship, a group mentorship format means that the mentor meets with all the mentees as a group at the same time. Group mentorship focuses more on learning and is closer to teaching than personal development. The mentees learn from the mentor and from one another in a supportive environment since the group may contain a diverse range of experiences and perspectives.

The Collab Lab works as a group mentorship program where early-career engineers learn from those who are more experienced. As part of the program, the group builds a fully functioning app.

“Coming to the program with a growth mindset is key to being successful in a collaborative program,” says Co-Founder Stacie Taylor-Cima. “Our mentors are dedicated to modeling vulnerability and celebrating setbacks which creates a space where it’s safe for our Collabies to experiment and grow.” 

Peer mentorship

Unlike the traditional mentorship relationship that pairs two people with different skill or experience levels, a peer mentorship relationship pairs two people with similar experience levels, skills, or roles together. There’s no traditional ‘mentor’ or ‘mentee’ here — both of them can step into either of these roles based on their challenges, bringing their own experiences and perspectives to the relationship.

A peer mentorship relationship fosters a sense of community and kinship, encourages peer learning, and connects people who can identify with one another.

Before you open the doors to invite applications, it’s time to think about what your mentorship program will look like and what you need to make this happen.

What resources do you need?

Many of the experts we spoke to run their mentorship programs as a team of one. It can be a lot of work to take on, so think about what you need to make it easier for you to do your job. This could include:

  • Forms for collecting applications and feedback
  • A database to save applicant information for future cohorts or other community programs
  • A website or landing page on your community’s website to promote the program
  • Email (or a program like Slack) to communicate with applicants and participants
  • Software to match mentors and mentees based on their profiles

What is the time commitment expected from participants?

For each cohort you run, you’ll need to think about the time mentors and mentees will put into it in three layers:

  • How many weeks or months will the program run for?
  • How often will pairs meet during this time?
  • How long will each meeting last?

In The Community Club’s mentorship program, mentors and mentees meet for three months, with at least one hour-long virtual meeting every month. They can decide how they want to communicate between these meetings based on what works best for them. At the end of three months, it’s up to them to decide whether they’d prefer to end their partnership or continue it independently of the program.

What are the other expectations from mentors and mentees?

Time isn’t the only thing you’re asking participants to commit. A mentoring relationship is built on mutual respect and trust — but it doesn’t hurt to make it explicit how you expect participants to behave. “Have clear expectations so that participants know what they’re committing to. Otherwise it's not going to be fair to the person they’re matched with,” says Erik Martin.

  • Communicating: You don’t need to micromanage them, but it’s important for your mentor and mentee to decide and be clear on how they’ll communicate with one another. Some mentors are more responsive on email, others prefer calls. They should be on the same page so they can check in with one another between meetings. 
  • Showing up: Life happens, and sometimes a mentor or a mentee may need to reschedule a meeting. That’s OK. It’s not OK if they’re rescheduling (or straight up missing) every meeting. Decide on a threshold, let them know, and enforce it.

    Sally Forester, Associate Director, Community Mentoring Programs at Leeds School of Business, University of Colorado, says she’s booted mentees from the program if they’re not meeting with their mentor even after she follows up with them. “I would rather remove that mentee from the program and open up that mentor to the possibility of getting another mentee,” she says. “Oftentimes mentors will beat themselves up, and I don't like that.” Respect goes both ways, so if your mentor is a no-show, you can reassign them, too!
  • Doing the work: It’s not about just being physically present. Mentees (and mentors) need to show up ready to actively listen, engage, and be involved in the process. For mentees especially, self-reflection is vital to doing the work so they can learn and grow with their mentor’s help.
  • Maintaining confidentiality: It should go without saying that mentors and mentees should keep any information they share between themselves. Encourage them to ask the other person — or you — if they’re unsure whether or not something can be shared with someone outside the program.

Some communities have a separate code of conduct for their mentorship program, which outlines what’s acceptable and what’s not. Others include this information in their community code of conduct that applies to all members regardless of the program. Whichever way you choose to structure it, make it easily available to participants.

“Our code of conduct is detailed on our website, and when new folks join our community, we require in all of our application forms that they agree to abide by it,” says Stacie Taylor-Cima, co-founder of The Collab Lab. 

“We have a team of code of conduct responders who have all been professionally trained by OtterTech in Code of Conduct Enforcement. Each team has a dedicated code of conduct responder that meets with the participants live to check in and support them in their Collab Lab experiences.”

What will the onboarding process look like?

Your onboarding process should help mentors and mentees understand the program’s goals and expectations, give them useful resources, and help them break the ice. You can do this in many ways:

Group events

Erik Martin attended a kickoff event when he was a participant in First Round’s mentorship program. “It was good to get a lot of people virtually in the same room to be able to go over some of the key points and answer questions about the programme. There was a nice energy to the event,” he says.

The Women in Tech SEO mentorship program has taken it one step further and partnered with an external consultant. “In our first cohort, we had one training session for mentors in the onboarding week and that was it,” says founder Areej AbuAli. “But it didn't feel enough. I knew that for the second cohort, we needed more support. We now have a dedicated program trainer for the full cohort, the brilliant Kathryn Monkcom

“In the onboarding week, Kathryn conducts a training session for mentors and another one for mentees. She also does weekly check-ins with the cohort on our Slack channels. In our most recent cohort, she's created a brilliant mentor and mentee handbook that can serve as a guide throughout the program.”

One-on-one connections

Whether you use Slack, email, or another tool to communicate with applicants, you can connect each pair individually once you’ve matched them. Take note: this isn’t necessarily smooth sailing.

When Thea Silayro, Community Manager at G2i Inc., began running their mentorship program, she’d match mentors and mentees and then jump into a Slack introduction. After a few experiences where she learned — on the introduction thread — that one of the participants had to back out, she’s changed her approach while still keeping one-on-one connection.

“Now I start off by messaging the mentor and mentee individually to make sure they are still interested in participating, as well as share a short pitch about their potential partner and why I thought the pairing would make sense,” says Thea.

She introduces the pair only once she has the go-ahead from both mentor and mentee.

Learning materials and resources

The mentorship program at Leeds School of Business has in person onboarding for students, but they don’t require an orientation for professional mentors. “We have a variety of materials that are accessible to the public like mentee guides, mentor guides, and a Vimeo channel where we do professional development for our professional mentors as a way to give back,” says Sally Forester, Associate Director, Community Mentoring Programs. 

How will you communicate the essentials with applicants and participants?

Now that you have the operations side of the program planned, you need to plan how you’ll let folks know about the details of your mentorship program so you’re not flooded with emails and DMs asking for the same information over and over again.

FAQ page on your website

Your community website is the perfect place to let folks know all about your mentorship program. From sharing your program’s goals and purpose to announcing applications and timelines, all the relevant information can live on this website for members to find at any time.

SheSharp, a non-profit foundation for women and non-binary people in tech, has a detailed FAQ section on their website that answers questions on mentorship in general and the program in particular. “The first year we ran it, there wasn’t a clear overview beyond saying we have a mentorship program and making it available for people to sponsor the program,” says Gabi Tang, Director of Community. 

When she took it over, Gabi wanted to bring as much clarity to it as possible. “I started building out an outline of what people would want to know. We got feedback and questions, and based on that we have incorporated more information into it this year,” she says.

While you can make changes to keep the page updated, Gabi doesn’t recommend making big, sweeping changes to what is effectively a source of truth. If you need to do so because your program has fundamentally changed, communicate these changes directly with the community as well, either through your community platform, email, social media, or all of the above.

Mentoring agreement

When mentors and mentees are accepted, you could ask them to sign a mentoring agreement that outlines the important information they need to know about the program. The Leeds School of Business participants all have to sign such an agreement, which Sally calls “foundation building”.

If you’d prefer not to have a formal agreement, you could include the relevant information in your acceptance email and ask them to acknowledge they’ve read it by replying.

Whichever route you take, make sure participants know who the Program Manager is and how to reach them so they can get in touch if they need to know more or if any problems arise.

Check your application form

What information you’ll ask mentors and mentees for will depend heavily on the purpose of your program and what you’re looking for to match pairs. 

Izzy Ortiz says they focus on the details to help make good matches. “We get granular on how many years of experience our mentors and mentees have, what type of community they’re building, interests, and background, so that I can then match them with the best person to help them,” says Izzy.

Keep in mind that it's OK to adjust your application with a new cohort as you learn more about what information is helpful in matching the right mentors and mentees. Gabi Tang, Director of Community at SheSharp, says they looked for different things from participants as the mentorship program grew. 

“In the first year, we were prioritizing just making sure people were matched,” says Gabi. “So we asked what they would like to mentor or be mentored in and their jobs, and we paired on that under the assumption that anyone would be good for somebody else.” 

As the program grew, Gabi realized that knowing exactly what kind of job the mentee wanted and their goals was most valuable in making good matches and updated the application form to reflect this.

Grace Cheung, Senior Manager, Social & Community at Lattice, says she asks all members who are interested to apply, even if they’ve applied before. “Since jobs and needs are always changing, we want to make sure the applications are up to date so we can make the best matches depending on people's most immediate needs, which could have changed drastically from four months ago,” says Grace.

Some potential questions to ask mentees:

  • What are your short-term goals
  • What are your long-term goals?
  • What are you hoping to learn from your mentor?
  • What skills do you want to develop?
  • How long have you worked in this profession/industry?

Announce your mentorship program to your community

It’s time to let members know that you’re ready to accept applications! Your announcement should have the basic information they’ll need to decide if the program is right for them, including:

  • The program’s goals for this cohort
  • The criteria or qualifications you’re looking for
  • The dates the cohort will begin and end
  • The deadline for accepting applications
  • Links to the application forms
  • Who to contact with questions

Your community platform is the obvious choice to announce your program, but you might miss some members who don’t check in regularly (they exist!). You can update your community website with the details and send an email to members as well.

While some communities announce it on social media, this approach doesn’t work for everyone. “Previously, I used to share the application form publicly on social media,” says Areej AbuAli, Founder of Women in Tech SEO. “I now only share it within our community groups because we used to have a few issues with mentees disappearing on our mentors. 

“Now that it's within the group, everyone is aware of our community rules and values, and it's become a much smoother process.”

Send members a nudge a few days before applications end too, so that anyone who wants to apply doesn’t miss the deadline.

Reach out to potential mentors

If you’re starting a new mentorship program, you could reach out to members you think will make great mentors and see if they’ll join. That’s what Areej did when, for the first cohort, the number of mentee applications was much larger than mentor applications. “Unfortunately, imposter syndrome gets us all and there's this question of ‘Am I good enough to be a mentor?’,” she says. “I started outreaching to lots of women directly and encouraging them to apply to be mentors, letting them know that we'll be providing training and guidance and support.”

Having a few mentors already on board might make it easier to get mentees to apply.

Communicating rejection and acceptance

It’s not fun to tell someone there’s no room for them in your program, but the unfortunate reality is that you will have to turn some members away. Share some resources that can help mentee hopefuls who aren’t the right fit for your program, and encourage them to apply again when they match the program criteria.

The Community Club sends members who aren’t accepted a list of resources — including a job board, helpful blog posts, and education offerings — to help them gain the skills and experience needed to fit the criteria. 

“We want to provide as much as we can to assist folks who don’t get accepted into the program,” says Maggie Graff. “It’s also helpful to retain their information to be able to check back in at a later date.”

The Collab Lab and SheSharp also encourage people to apply again. SheSharp is also looking to add more programming and events to support both mentee and mentor applicants who weren’t accepted, including peer-to-peer learning opportunities or workshops and speaking at or hosting workshops, says Gabi.

Sending out those acceptance emails is a much happier task. Let members know what the next steps are, share any resources and agreements they need to sign, and get ready to start matching.

You’ve selected your mentors and mentees, and now it’s time to match them together. You’ll have done a lot of the heavy lifting already: you set clear goals for the program, designed the application form to get you relevant information to make matches, and only accepted folks who fit the criteria.

Look at what your mentees are asking for, and find a mentor with the corresponding give. For example, a mentee who wants to improve their public speaking or presentation skills is matched with a mentor who has a lot of experience in that area. The end goal is to create a match that gives both mentors and mentees the best experience with the program.

You could do this with a spreadsheet — many Program Managers do! You’ll also find software like Matcha that automates this process for you so you don’t have to spend hours poring over the information, allowing you to focus on other aspects of the program that need more of your time.

It’s up to mentors and mentees to do the work — but a helping hand never hurts. We’ve created some pointers you can share with your mentors and mentees to help them at different stages of the program, which include: 

  • What to prepare before their first meeting
  • Ideas on how to reflect after each conversation
  • Tips on how to build a strong relationship and hit their goals

(Scroll up if you’re reading this on your desktop and look for the button on the right that says ‘get the resources’. If you’re on mobile, you’ll find this at the bottom of your screen.)

Want to know how mentors and mentees feel about your program? Ask for feedback! This will give you insight into what’s working, where you can improve the program, and potential breakdowns in processes.

The Program Managers we spoke to have differing opinions on measuring their program's impact — some prefer qualitative data, such as participant feelings during the program, while others prefer quantitative data, such as meeting frequency and program participation rate. Both types of data play their part in helping you understand your program’s performance and how to make it stronger. 

How to measure impact

You can use either a Customer Satisfaction (CSAT) score or Net Promoter Score (NPS) to get quantitative data.

NPS gives you a big-picture view of how participants feel about the program overall and help you spot areas for improvement. CSAT, on the other hand, looks at specific interactions or processes and how satisfied participants are with these in the short term.

Erik Martin suggests using NPS to ask questions that can lead to long-term program improvement. One of his favorite questions, he says, is, "How likely are you to recommend this mentorship program to a friend or colleague?"

👉 Actionable tip: In your application form, ask people how they found out about your program and keep track of this, too, as a measure of how satisfied past participants have been. “It's one thing that people say they would theoretically recommend it to someone, but it's another they actually do it,” Erik says. “That's how the program can grow.”

Other recommended NPS questions include:

  • Did you achieve your goals through the program?
  • How do you feel about your match?
  • What one thing can we do to improve the program?
  • What was your favorite aspect of the program?
  • What did you like least about the program?

Scott Baldwin, Head of Community at Productboard, prefers CSAT scores because they measure participant satisfaction with each interaction. "We like to check in with participants after every interaction while it's fresh in their mind,” he says. “This is why CSAT scores work best for us, as they provide insight into how satisfied participants are with each interaction, allowing us to make quick changes.”

Scott and his team also gather long-term data on the program through surveys after every interaction, session, and cohort, getting qualitative and quantitative data to understand the program's success at both a high and granular level. Based on survey answers, they sometimes conduct interviews to dig a little deeper into the answers.

How often should you check in/get feedback?

This can be different for every program, depending on how long the program lasts and what you're tracking. 

Feedback about matches

How do your mentors and mentees feel about who they’re matched with? “When you're in a mentorship program, it can be difficult to share feedback in the moment about how you feel about the person you've been matched with,” says Erik. “It works to have time to think about it and write down a few sentences about where you think the person was engaged and participating, and when they then just didn't follow through.”

Getting these notes from participants will help you improve the program or help clear up any misunderstandings. This can happen at the end of a session or at the end of the program.

Feedback about the program 

Scott says his team at Productboard found it essential to get feedback after every interaction between mentor and mentee instead of just at the end of the program. This helped them make iterative changes that would improve the experience during the program itself to not lose out on value. 

"We used a bunch of methods to get both qualitative and quantitative data on interactions between mentors and mentees," says Scott. "We used an analytics tool and surveys to tell us the quality of each interaction, from their satisfaction with the match to if the conversation was valuable."

This also gave the Productboard team a chance to gather testimonials from members to promote the program to others.

Areej AbuAli does a mid-program check and a final program check for the Women in Tech SEO mentor program. Her tip: ask for ratings on a scale of 1 to 4, not 1 to 5. “If you ask for a rating out of 4, there's no '3' for people to hide under. It's either 1 or 2, which are weak, or it's 3 or 4, which are strong,” she says.

Ways to gather feedback

Like gathering feedback from community members, you can gather feedback from your mentorship program participants through four methods.

Surveys: Send participants a survey about their experience with well-thought-out questions.

Interviews: Set up interviews to gain a deeper understanding of participant experiences and improvements to be made.

Analytics: Use an analytics tool to track participant behavior and gather data.

Notes: Encourage participants to take notes on their experiences during the program to share with program managers.

Do you run your own community mentorship program or are you looking to start one? We’d love to hear from you on your big wins and what challenges you’re facing. Drop us a line at cole@commsor.com and let us know!

With inputs from Pam Magwaza

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