Tag Archives: mentors

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?