Tag Archives: mentoring

What I’ve learned as a mentor online

Since leaving Kabul, Afghanistan in August 2007, after working there for six months for UNDP, I have had the honor and pleasure of mentoring an Afghan co-worker online. She works on a water and sanitation initiative by a government agency, and I consult online with her on social media posts, I edit press releases and project proposals and reports, and I offer advice on her own professional development and career aspirations. I average an hour a week on this relationship – there are some weeks when we don’t interact and others where I need a few hours to read and edit material.

Here are some lessons I’ve learned from this online mentoring experience:

  • That we started off in a face-to-face, onsite relationship helped substantially in setting up this online relationship for success. She already knew me, understood my particular way of communicating and working, and trusted me. Those are three things that take much longer to establish entirely online, even with video conferencing. I have been an online mentor when that hasn’t been the case, and I believe those mentoring experiences were still worthwhile, but I had to do a lot more work to establish trust and find a rhythm in a purely online/remote relationship, and the relationship had to be facilitated by someone onsite, where the person I was mentoring was, to help ensure interactions happened. I just cannot deny that having that already-established real-time/onsite relationship has been a major factor in the success of this long-time virtual volunteering experience with my Afghan colleague.
  • When I don’t respond within 48 hours to a message from her, my mentee worries or, worse, feels neglected. I need to take this relationship as seriously as she does. That means I have to let her know when I am not going to be able to respond because I’m going to be traveling or away from Internet access.
  • I can’t do everything for her – I need to cultivate her skills. That means editing more with questions than corrections. And that’s hard – it would be so much quicker and easier if I just went through and corrected everything like an editor. But this is a mentoring relationship, a learning experience, and I have to keep that foremost in my mind.
  • Personal, non-work stories and photos are essential to cultivating our relationship. I send her links to vacation photos or photos of my garden, for instance. She sends me stories of her family. This keeps us as real people for each other, not just text in an email.
  • I make absolutely sure I don’t say anything that can’t be backed up with cited sources. Rumors are rampant in Afghanistan, and it’s very important that I show, by example, how to fact-check.
  • Knowing the culture in which my mentee/protogé is living has also been essential to maintaining this relationship. I’m no expert on Afghanistan or Islam, but I lived in Kabul for six months, I have read up on Afghan history (and continue to do so), I have read the Koran and continue to read Islamic scholars and others about Islam, including those I strongly disagree with, and I know there are a range of viewpoints by Muslim women about their religion. That’s been helpful in preventing me from making various cultural missteps – though I won’t for a minute say that still doesn’t happen. Knowing the culture has helped me know what is possible and what is NOT possible for her regarding activities online, travel and interacting with others, and to remember just how fragile reputations for women can be in that part of the world.
  • I try to know what’s going on in her country and her city. That’s not easy, as news about Afghanistan doesn’t show up in any newsfeed. Major news outlets do cover what’s happening in Afghanistan, but I have to go looking for it. There’s so much more to Afghanistan than bombings and oppression of women. For instance, I found a story that mentioned a Rotary Club in Kabul, and I emailed my friend to let her know about it. She’s been going to the meetings now for almost a year because I let her know about the meetings.
  • I ask her questions about her views, her life, etc. I make sure she knows, regularly, that I want to hear from her. And after those stories, I respond in a way that shows that I read what she says and value it.
  • Online mentoring is not micro-volunteering. I cringe when anyone says it’s possible to mentor a person, especially a youth, in a meaningful, impactful way by just spending a few minutes a month sending some encouraging words. Mentoring takes time, thought and careful action – it can’t be done on the fly while you are waiting for your coffee.

vvbooklittleSusan Ellis and I go into great detail about cultivating online relationships in virtual volunteering and the keys to success for online mentoring projects and programs in The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook. I’ve been researching online mentoring since the 1990s, and helped design programs for America Online and People Magazine back in that decade, as well as an elementary school-based program for an Austin, Texas school. I’ve been involved as a mentor with others since then and I keep track of online mentoring programs because of their uniqueness among virtual volunteering activities: the high-responsibility nature of the programs, the essential requirement of building trust, the added safety procedures needed for such, etc. Our book attempts to document all of the best practices for using the Internet to support and involve volunteers, including in online mentoring relationships with adults or children, and our recommendations come from the more than three decades that these practices have been happening. The book is available both in traditional print form and in digital version from Susan’s company, Energize, Inc.

Also see:

Safety in virtual volunteering

Between my Google Alerts and those whom I follow on Twitter, I see a story at least once a day about the engagement of online volunteers. I put the most interesting or unique ones on the Virtual Volunteering Wiki. It’s so wonderful to see virtual volunteering oh-so-mainstream. I’m not at all surprised: by the 1990s, it was already impossible to track every organization involving online volunteers – there were so many! If there is anyone out there still talking about any form of virtual volunteering – digital volunteers, micro volunteering, crowd sourcing, ework, etc. – as “new”, you have to wonder: have they been under a rock?

But I do have a concern: many of these virtual volunteering initiatives don’t seem to have thought about online safety. Too many, in my opinion, are focused on creating a really complex, feature-rich web site for volunteers to use to sign up and contribute their time and skills, but not thinking about risk management – protecting clients and volunteers.

As Susan Ellis and I say in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, and I say in any workshop related to virtual volunteering:

Relatively speaking, the Internet is no more or less safe than any other public space, such as a school, faith community, or sports stadium. Fears of exploitation, abuse, or exposure to sexually-explicit or violent material should not prevent an agency from engaging in virtual volunteering, any more than such fears should prevent the involve­ment of volunteers onsite. There is risk in any vol­unteering, online or face-to-face. The challenge is to minimize and manage such risk. (page 112)

Do you have to interview every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to check professional references on every candidate for online volunteering? Do you have to conduct a criminal background check on every online volunteer? No, you don’t have to do any of these things IF the tasks they will do as volunteers don’t warrant such – they aren’t going to work with clients, they aren’t going to work with other online volunteers and know their names, they aren’t going to have access to confidential information, they won’t have access to any online systems in such a way that they could even accidentially harm such, etc. Again, back to a quote from The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.:

Every organization will have different interview­ ing and screening methods based on what services volunteers provide and its workplace culture. Even for volunteers working onsite, the issues involved in volunteering for a beach cleanup or simple clerical work are not the same as issues involved in volun­teering to tutor young children or manage an orga­nization’s computer systems.

The same is true for online volunteers. Your screening approach will be different for a volun­teer designing a Web page than for one creating a private online area where your staff and clients will interact and the online volunteer will have far more access to client contact and other confidential information. (page 41)

If an online volunteering role does warrant some degree of screening – and not all do, but most do – then you have to decide how much there will be, and how it will be conducted. First and foremost is that you must follow the law. For instance, many states require a criminal background check on any volunteers that will work with children one-on-one. A volunteer who will come to a classroom one time to speak about his or her job may not be required by law to undergo a criminal background check, but someone who will talk with a child, one-on-one, even if they will always be in a room with other adults and children, probably is required by law to undergo such – apply the same principles to online volunteers in determining what screening is required. Should the online volunteering candidate be interviewed? If the person is new and is doing any task that requires at least some expertise – web page development, translating text from one language to another, moderating an online discussion group, designing a newsletter, editing a brochure, etc. – yes, absolutely! Many more tips for screening online volunteers to ensure they really can do the task that they have signed up for, and have the time to do so, can be found in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook.

My favorite resource on screening volunteers, online or offline, that will work with clients in any capacity, is free to download: Screening Volunteers to Prevent Child Sexual Abuse: A Community Guide for Youth Organizations. Point one under the section on what to do before the organization starts screening volunteers is this: “Develop criteria that define how screening information will be used to determine an applicant’s suitability.” That will be different for every organization, depending on their mission and the work volunteers will do. You have to think about not only worst-case scenarios – screening out people that might sexually and/or financially-exploit clients, other volunteers, etc. – but also about people who don’t have the skills necessary for the work, people who don’t have the temperament for the challenges, and people who really don’t have time to volunteer, as all of those scenarios, while not criminal, can be harmful to your organization and those it serves.

You also have to clearly define what behavior is inappropriate on the part of online volunteers, how you will communicate that to volunteers, the consequences of inappropriate behavior, and how you are going to be aware of such behavior. As we note in the guidebook, a way to absolutely ensure safety in online interactions between volunteers and clients is to set up a private sys­tem through which all messages are sent, reviewed by staff before they can be read by the intended recipient, stripped of all personal identifying information by the moderator, archived for the record, etc., but that such a system can ruin an attempt to create trusting, caring relationships between volunteers and clients (and we provide a powerful example of how such a super-safe system ended up almost derailing an online mentoring program). Your efforts to ensure safety must balance with your program goals.

Among the many suggestions we make in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, regarding online safety is this:

The best way to ensure that clients and vol­unteers are having positive online experiences is for program staff to stay in frequent touch with both, to encourage an atmosphere of open communication. Also, it is fundamental that you establish and clearly (and frequently) communicate policies regarding online exchanges between volunteers and clients. (page 114)

Clearly, explicitly inform applicants for volunteering about your organization’s policies and procedures regarding safety, abuse prevention, and all aspects of risk management, as well as circumstances that would lead to a volunteer being dismissed. Be explicit. Also share your code of conduct or statement of ethics in writing. Ask applicants if they have a problem with any of the policies and procedures, code of ethics, etc.; such a discussion will help you find out if applicants are uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. Even though it is not legally binding, require applicants to sign a document that states they understand and agree to adhere to your policies and procedures and code of conduct; again, this can help you find out if an applicant is uncomfortable with any aspect of such, which can be an indicator that they are an inappropriate candidate. It also affirms to volunteers that you make the safety of your volunteers, staff and clients a priority, which can encourage new volunteers to take such precautions with the utmost seriousness.

vvbooklittleThere are lots more suggestions and specifics about risk management, online safety, ensuring client confidentiality and setting boundaries for relationships in virtual volunteering in The LAST Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, available both as a traditional printed book and as a digital book. Suggestions for risk management are found throughout the book, in the chapters regarding developing and revising policies, designing assignments for online volunteers, interviewing and screening online volunteers, orienting and training online volunteers, basic techniques for working with online volunteers, and online volunteers working directly with clients, as well as the chapter written for online volunteers themselves. Our advice is based on both virtual volunteering practices, including micro volunteering and crowdsourcing, and the proven fundamentals of onsite, face-to-face, traditional volunteer management.

Also see:

Keeping volunteers safe – & keeping everyone safe with volunteers

Why don’t they tell? Would they at your org?

Safety of volunteers contributes to a shelter closing

volunteer managers: you are NOT psychic!

Photos & videos by & of volunteers online – privacy issues?

Junior Achievement & Virtual Volunteering

Just found out about Taking It Digital: New Opportunities for Volunteer Service, a report published by Junior Achievement and the Citi Foundation. It reports on JA’s Digital Volunteer Strategy Initiative in the USA, launched in April 2014 and which develops online educational assets and digital delivery tools for JA’s high school JA Personal Finance® course.

“This report is based on the best practice literature in online volunteering, volunteer management, and online education; a review of a beta set of online project tools; and interviews with JA volunteer managers involved in a recent pilot of the Initiative (Phase II of a two-phase pilot project). The study purpose is to identify issues organizations should consider in taking their volunteer/service programs into the digital realm.”

In the JA’s program, volunteers teach a five-unit course to students in diverse school settings using both on-site and off-site components: after an initial face-to-face visit to the classroom to introduce the course, the volunteer remotely leads several sessions of online lessons, which requires onsite facilitation by the classroom teacher.

I’m thrilled to know that my book, The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook, was used as a resource for this report and its recommendations – and to see so many names of well-known researchers and practitioners regarding virtual volunteering, many of them my colleagues, cited in the detailed report.

This JA digital initiative / virtual volunteering effort is in addition to the Enterprise Without Border E-Mentoring tool, created and is managed by Junior Achievement Young Enterprise Europe (JA-YE Europe). It’s for volunteers from the business sector, teachers and student companies participating in the EwB program and enables its members to create discussion groups, discuss and work on particular projects and topics, and provides information about upcoming on-line webinars, EwB cafés, presentations and enables access to all study materials connected with EwB activities.

Congrats to Junior Achievement for both your initiatives and for being so open in sharing your information, and to Citi Foundation, which joins: Fundacja Orange (the Polish branch) in funding virtual volunteering-related initiatives. Sadly, they seem to be the only two companies currently supporting such innovation with cash.

Also see:

Hey, corporations: time to put your money where your mouth is re: nonprofits & innovation

Fear of Wrestling

You probably won’t hear any well-known social media guru talking about it, you probably won’t hear about it in any social media workshop (except mine, of course), but do you know who is getting the MOST out of social media when it comes to community engagement?


Check out 110 Trending Topics in 5 Hours: How WWE Wrestlemania Body-Slammed Social Media:

Behind strong pushes on Twitter and YouTube, WWE Wrestlemania XXVIII laid the smack down on social media last weekend, teaching a digital engagement lesson to the sports entertainment world.

Heck, Wrestlemania taught a digital engagement lesson to the nonprofit world, to ANY world, if those sectors will listen. Also see: How the WWE Is Making WrestleMania More Social Than Ever.

But will you click on those links? Or are you already lifting up your nose at the mere mention of the word wrestling?

Professional wrestling – or, as my people like to call it, rasslin’ – is unbelievably popular world wide. I’ve been stunned at how many wrestling shirts I’ve seen all over the world, including in Kabul, Afghanistan. In Kabul, there are (or, at least, in 2007, there were) gyms in the city that had the images of wrestlers from Wrestlemania in front of their businesses to draw people in (don’t sue, Wrestlemania, just don’t). I couldn’t understand why USAID wasn’t employing stars from Wrestlemania to create public service announcements for Afghans about whatever it is we’re trying to get Afghans to do (support women in microenterprises, support girls going to school, grow wheat instead of poppies, drive on the right side of the road, employ proper water sanitation practices, etc.). I’m totally serious, USAID!

But we cringe at the thought of… sniff… wrestlers being involved in anything noble or high-minded or community-focused like that.

I worked with People Magazine once upon a time to do a pilot online mentoring program with kids in Washington, D.C. – and the People folks wanted celebrities to be the online mentors. At a classroom we visited in the basement of a school (where it was easily over 100 degrees on that stifling hot day), there were probably five kids wearing Wrestlemania t-shirts. I talked to the kids while the rest of our visiting party stood across the room, as far away from the students as possible, and when I asked the students what kind of celebrities they admired, they didn’t name rap stars – they named wrestlers. I was thinking, hey great, we’re getting wrestlers for these kids as online mentors! Later that afternoon, in our followup planning meeting in an air-conditioned room of a then dominant Internet provider in Virginia, a room so cold I needed a sweater, People Magazine staff balked at the idea of wrestlers. They said they were thinking of celebrities such as Martha Stewart and Charleton Heston as possible mentors for these teens. I kid you not – that’s the two people they named in that meeting as examples of proper online mentors for inner-city teens.

It’s worth noting that the first virtual volunteering by a celebrity I have been able to find has been by…  A RETIRED WRESTLER. Mick Foley is a an online volunteer with RAINN (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network), the largest anti-sexual assault organization in the USA. He talked about his experience as an online volunteer on a November 2010 episode of The Daily Show with John Stewart. In a RAINN web video, Foley says, “I cannot think of a better way to spend a few hours a week than helping someone who needs RAINN’s services.” Learn more about volunteering for RAINN’s Online Hotline.

(Yes, I just burned a bridge with People Magazine. So much for my bid to be one of their most beautiful people. Ah, well.)

Let’s be clear: I actually don’t watch wrestling. Well, now, anyway – when I was 8, I loved watching Bill “Superstar” Dundee on TV. I also loved roller derby in those days. But, indeed, I have moved on. I could not name a modern-day wrestler. I’m not as hip as you might think.

But I haven’t become too sophisticated to say, way to go, Wrestlemania. I’ll happily learn from Wrestlemania and wrestlers when it comes to virtual volunteering, online mentoring, and online community engagement, I’d love to invite your participation in any community engagement activity I’m a part of, and I’ll even use examples of your online activities in my workshops – even while other social media experts and nonprofit management trainers rolls their eyes and cringe.

But I still might call it rasslin’.

Consulting services by Jayne Cravens.


CNN Recognizes Virtual Volunteering; Do You?

Virtual volunteering in all its forms – long-term service, online mentoring, online microvolunteering, crowdsourcing, etc. – has been around for more than 30 years, as long as the Internet has been around, and there are several thousand organizations that have been engaging with online volunteers since at least the late 1990s. While directing the Virtual Volunteering Project, I gave up trying to track every organization involving online volunteers in 1999, because there were just too many!

Virtual volunteering – people donating their time and expertise via a computer or smart phone to nonprofit causes and programs – has been talked about in major media, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, CNN, the Associated Press, Deutche Welle, the BBC, even the Daily Show, for more than 15 years (I know because I’ve been quoted in a lot of those stories!).

But virtual volunteering has remained thought of as a fringe movement, or something brand new, by many, despite it being so well-established. Virtual volunteering still isn’t included in national volunteerism reports by any national or international body, such as the Points of Light Foundation, the Corporation for National Service or the Pew Research Center, Volunteering England, or Volunteer Australia.

Perhaps the last holdouts regarding virtual volunteering will finally give in and accept it as mainstream, now that an online mentoring program representative has been nominated as a CNN Hero.

I was introduced to Infinite Family in 2010, and was immediately impressed with its commitment to the fundamentals of a successful online mentoring program in its administration of the program, including the importance it places on site manager-involvement in its program. This is an online mentoring program absolutely committed to quality, to the children its been set up to support, and its online volunteer screening process is no cake walk – as it should be, as the children it supports deserve nothing less! Mentoring cannot be done whenever you might have some time, in between flights at an airport: it takes real time and real commitment, even when its online. Infinite Family gets that.

While all of the CNN Hero projects are worthy of attention and support, I am throwing my support to Infinite Family as the top CNN Hero for 2011.

If you want to volunteer online, here is a long list of where to find virtual volunteering opportunities, including long-term service, online mentoring, online microvolunteering, and crowdsourcing.

Also see the archived Virtual Volunteering Project web site, and resources on my web site regarding volunteer engagement and support.