How relationship-based volunteering is more meaningful

It’s a familiar scene to most of us – our volunteers go somewhere for a day, serve some food or paint a fence, and tick off their do-goodery box for the year. This is actually great – those nonprofits and events genuinely needed extra hands. But fast-forward a month later, and the feeling of satisfaction fades into the backdrop. What happened?

Most volunteers know that their impact in these involvements is limited, and besides, they usually don’t get to tangibly perceive the long-term results of their work first-hand. That feedback component is critical – it’s the signal that let’s us know we did a good job, and that the time we spent was worthwhile, because we actually made a dent in the universe.

In many of these cases, what is missing is a human relationship that extends past the initial delivery. We are social animals – our brains secrete endorphins when we help others. Primatologist Frans De Waal puts it this way: “We are group animals, who rely on each other,”

Volunteer leaders ignore the social component at their peril. A study by Babson College found that prosocial behavior in the workplace (voluntary actions with a social purpose) was correlated with higher workplace engagement, more productivity, and better retention.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a mentoring volunteer opportunity offers more meaning than a one-off opportunity, even if that one-off leverages the volunteer’s skills. It gives the volunteer an opportunity to give a little bit at a time, and see the fruits of their contributions manifest in the form of the mentee’s accomplishments. Meg Garlinghouse, Head of LinkedIn for Good, researched skilled volunteers and found that 74% of volunteers were interested specifically in mentoring opportunities.

michael-edward-jones On MicroMentor, even though our mentors ostensibly are volunteering to share knowledge, many find that the relationships that they form expand beyond the scope of providing advice. An example of this is Michael Edward Jones, a channel marketing expert from Hewlett Packard Enterprise. Michael stays in close contact with his mentee Murni, despite a 13-hour time difference (she lives in Singapore). When Murni e-mails Michael, she usually gets an almost-instant answer from Michael, who intrinsically gets pleasure from being part of Murni’s story.

Michael shares with us, “Working with Murni has provided me much more than I thought it would. I think I am one of her biggest cheerleaders, because I want to see her succeed. I feel like I am a part of what she is doing. She gives me a new way to learn about the world. Even if time passes and things change, I will still want to know how Murni is doing and what she is up to.”
Once a trusting relationship has been established, volunteers can go on to do some incredible things for their mentees. Even though their relationship is young, Michael has already started involving his colleagues in helping Murni to provide feedback on her pitch deck and social media campaigns. Or consider Frank Burrows, a retired food executive. He toured manufacturing plants in the U.S. as a market research scout for a fledgling beverage manufacturer in Costa Rica. We’ve also heard countless examples of mentors traveling to meet their mentees, joining the Board of Directors of their mentees’ nonprofits, and even being invited to family events.

A great relationship is by no means automatic. There is no one-size-fits-all formula, but after years of facilitating mentoring relationships, we’ve learned a few tricks…

Here are 3 of our favorite tricks to build a meaningful mentoring relationship:

  1. A mentor is most compatible with somebody 2 steps behind them
    One of the most tenacious stereotypes about mentors is that they are sage old veterans of the business world. The truth is that one can be a mentor very early in life, as long as they have the right wisdom at the right time for their mentee. When the Kauffman Foundation interviewed experts on business mentoring, they learned that entrepreneurs need to have perceived similarity with their mentor in order to develop more trust – the best mentors aren’t too far removed from their mentee’s market. This suggests that although a more seasoned mentor will have more knowledge and a deeper range of experiences to draw from, mentors closer in age to their mentee can relate to their mentee’s business challenges more closely.
  2. Get offline immediately
    It has already become conventional wisdom in the online dating world that the best strategies involve getting offline ASAP. This is one tactic that is also true for mentoring online. The truth is, if you aren’t compatible with your mentee, you’re not likely to be very helpful to them.; To determine compatibility, there is still no replacement for a live conversation (phone or video chat can also work). This gives you a chance to start building rapport immediately. If there’s not a fit, it is much better to discover that quickly, so you can move on to the next match.
  3. Don’t rush your goals – build trust with baby steps
    Instead of taking on the mentee’s entire 3 year vision, find a quick win that you can accomplish together easily. It will be incredibly motivating, you’ll learn a lot about each other’s working style, and it will provide clarity about what to direction to take the mentoring relationships in.

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Also, check out our free training deck for volunteer mentors.