Can Mentees Improve Your Association’s Bench Strength?

According to a new study, effective mentoring programs can groom newer members for volunteer leadership as well as help them in their jobs.

Mentoring programs are typically considered a member benefit, a way to help students and others new to a profession get their sea legs. But the association offering the program can benefit too, both by building up a pool of volunteers and perhaps creating a more cohesive board.

Those are couple of the findings of study published last week by Nourse Leadership Strategies, which looked at the mentoring programs at eight associations. In the study, authors Dr. Kevin Nourse and Dr. Alice Waagen suggest that mentoring programs that are closely linked to membership development programs tend to be more successful. “By enlisting [early-career members] their participation in a leadership mentoring program, not only do they begin creating a leadership pipeline of talent but they also build loyalty to the association among these members,” they write.

That work may be increasingly valuable for organizations that are struggling to fill slots in important leadership roles. Consider one of the more striking quotes from one of the study’s participants: “One of the things that we’re constantly talking about around here is really how to build our bench strength. We have those who are very engaged and end up doing everything. They move from one committee to another committee to another committee. Well, eventually they’re not going to be here. They’re going to move on, and so it is really critical to look at how you prepare that next wave.”

We have those who are very engaged and end up doing everything. Well, eventually they’re not going to be here.

So how do you prepare that next wave? Nourse says that, first off, the program needs to make that goal explicit. “If the program is focused on creating volunteer leaders, then mentors should have some experience and legitimacy as volunteer leaders,” he says.

One way to enforce that, Nourse says, is to embed that mentorship responsibility into the board- or chapter-leader role—one association, he says, went so far as to codify it in its board policies. But while staff members can help coordinate a mentoring program, Nourse says, it functions best when it’s owned and managed by volunteer leaders, who experience the industry at the ground level and may be better equipped to facilitate successful mentor-mentee pairings. That also helps create an environment when the program is driven by the mentees, not the association or the mentor. “One of the big reasons people don’t volunteer to be a mentor is the sense of the time burden,” Nourse says. “If they have assurance that mentees will be an active partner in the relationship, they may be more willing to participate.”

To that end, the study suggests that the most effective mentoring programs are comptetive among potential mentees but are flexible after selection, giving pairs the opportunity to define its own goals and time investments. (Though the mentorship typically lasted one year among participants.) While the study has a small sample size, those who participated said that their programs with a leadership-training focus has worked well—one association noted a board member was a participant in the program, while another’s helped groom the head of its government relationship committee.

In the study’s report, Nourse and Waagen suggest that mentorship programs might be expanded for use within boards, where they were relatively rare. Though such a system runs the risk of creating hierarchies on the board—those assigned to learn and those who teach—Nourse believes an intra-board program can get newer leaders up to speed faster. “In the mentor-mentee interaction, the mentee is able to set intentions for skills they want to practice after the session,” Nourse says. “Therefore, a mentor program for new board members could represent a great way to extend the impact of a board orientation.”

Regardless of how sophisticated (or not) a mentorship program is, one crucial element is often neglected after the mentee completes it, Nourse says—an opportunity to put it into practice. He argues that associations should be mindful about creating leadership opportunities for participants after that year-long run is over. “You’re not just developing people, but making sure you have places for the right people,” Nourse says. “Associations graduate people from these programs but if they don’t have a role they can step into, then the clock starts ticking on their newfound skills. They’ve got to use them, stretch, and grow in terms of leadership positions.”

What works best for your leadership program, and how closely connected is it to your leadership pipeline? Share your experiences in the comments.


Mark Athitakis

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis, a contributing editor for Associations Now, has written on nonprofits, the arts, and leadership for a variety of publications. He is a coauthor of The Dumbest Moments in Business History and hopes you never qualify for the sequel. MORE

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