Although we’d like to think that volunteers learn most of what they need know during our formal volunteer training, in reality, most of what we learn, we learn by doing when we’re on the job. This makes mentoring volunteers of utmost importance.

On-the-job training may, in fact, be the most effective training strategy—even more so than classroom instruction. According to experts in the field of leadership development, 70% of learning is provided through the use of challenging assignments and on-the-job experiences, 20% of learning is developed through relationships, networks, and feedback, and 10% of learning is delivered via formal training processes.

Observation and supported on-the-job mentoring allows learners to practice their skills while working with clients in real time. Using case studies as part of coursework helps; but attempting the task and receiving real-time feedback and support is even more beneficial to the learners. It stimulates the brain and helps training participants learn more quickly and thoroughly.

Setting up a peer-to-peer mentoring program for volunteers can help them bridge classroom or online learning activities and the reality of their roles.

Peer-to-Peer Volunteer Mentoring: How It works

New volunteers, either for specific jobs or all jobs, are matched with a fellow volunteer, who shares their expertise, wisdom, and skills with their mentee. Both mentors and mentees are oriented to the expectations of their respective roles.

The goal of mentoring is the effective knowledge transfer and the cultivation of volunteer talent. Through mentoring, experienced volunteers get a chance to share their unique knowledge and experience with new recruits and pass on the legacy of what they’ve learned.

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The Benefits of Mentoring Volunteers

Although mentoring is an investment in time and attention, it need not unduly disrupt the ongoing operations of a program. Mentoring can be woven into the team’s day-to-day work, and with a very small investment in time, can reap rewards for everyone.

How Mentoring Benefits Mentees

  • Provides a place to get answers to questions that arise during self-study in order to better prepare for learning during formal training modules
  • Shows how what is learned in class is “operationalized” on the ground
  • Increases confidence by offering lots of chances to practice in a supported environment
  • Eliminates any bad habits early on

How Mentoring Benefits Mentors

  • Offers leadership opportunities for volunteers seeking change
  • Minimizes frequency of repeated questions and answers from learners
  • Builds teamwork and trust between veterans and “newbies”
  • Frees mentors up to try new things or take a break
  • Offers a chance to reflect on their own practice and improve weak areas

How Mentoring Benefits Organizations

  • Reduces the risk that volunteers will make mistakes
  • Shortens training time, so volunteers can start making a difference sooner
  • Builds up program resilience to unexpected losses of key volunteers
  • Decreases reliance on volunteer coordinator by creating a continuous cycle of mutual volunteer-led support
  • Prevents burnout and overloading of a few volunteer experts
  • Builds fledgling volunteer-program relationships by maintaining an ongoing connection to a supportive “buddy”

Who Makes a Good Volunteer Mentor?

There are only two requirements for a mentor – 1) that they are competent in what they are teaching and 2) that they are willing to teach it. No special expertise in training or coaching is required. Mentors don’t need to be particularly adept at “people skills,” although patience and reliability are important.

Ideally, mentors should be experienced local volunteers; however, it may not be possible to find a local volunteer to mentor. In these cases, other competent people, such as local or regional coordinators may step in to mentor. Face-to-face mentoring is ideal, but not always possible either. Mentoring by phone or video chat is also permitted, as long as any clients present are made aware and allow it.

Criteria for Mentors

Each organization should set up a list of minimum requirements for appointing volunteer mentors that will support fellow volunteers. Here are a few to consider:

  • Experienced volunteer (certified for their role, if appropriate)
  • Willing to take on the additional responsibility of mentoring (may also reduce their other responsibilities, if need be)
  • Adequate people and communication skills, with a willingness to learn new coaching skills
  • Approved by volunteer coordinator to mentor
  • Complete mentor orientation and willing to follow guidelines

When Should Mentoring Volunteers Occur?

New volunteers should be matched with a mentor once they have completed at least their initial volunteer orientation. Not all of their training needs to be completed, if it is complex. In fact, mentors may help mentees learn better during training.  

Mentors and mentees should work together until the mentee has successfully completed their training (and certification, if appropriate) or when they have demonstrated they can perform their work comfortably on their own.

What Support Should Accompany Volunteer Mentoring Programs?

A fact sheet about the program, mentor and mentee guides, and a mentor training module are helpful tools to orient mentors and mentees to their respective responsibilities and what can be expected from the relationship.

A mentor train-the-trainer module should include, at minimum:

  • How mentoring helps adults learn
  • How mentoring supports volunteer training
  • Who makes a good mentor
  • What tools are available to support mentoring
  • Tips for working with your mentee

The Mentor and mentee guides should include, at minimum:

  • Mentoring program logistics and timeline
  • The volunteer training program
  • A list of learning competencies that mentees are expected to learn through training
  • Support tools available to mentors and mentees

Mentoring extends learning into the real world, and is particularly effective when on-the-job training is incorporated into the mentoring strategy. Organizations that involve volunteers in mentoring not only help new volunteers onboard more quickly, they also help existing volunteers develop leadership skills and save volunteer coordinators time. It’s a triple win that benefits everyone.