October 1997 // Volume 35 // Number 5 // Tools of the Trade // 5TOT1
Developing a Successful Mentoring Program for Volunteer Training
Developing a Successful Mentoring Program for Volunteer Training describes an effort involving veteran Master Gardener volunteers in the training of new volunteers. The effort has resulted in increased retention of volunteers and better transfer of knowledge and skills from veterans to beginners. Pairs of mentors are assigned a small group of new volunteers to work with before, during and after their training classes. A key components is the involvement of a middle manager known as a mentor coordinator.
The expansion of an existing, but small, volunteer Master Gardener program was made possible by involving veteran volunteers as mentors to welcome newcomers to the program, provide encouragement and personal contact during the formal class program, and provide training to help newcomers start their service work to pay-back time for the formal instruction.
An informal Master Gardener mentor program was put in place in Lincoln County, Oregon in 1993. For three years it included two or three mentors and a small group of new volunteers. Then the local Master Gardener Association chapter and the county Extension agent expanded the Master Gardener program in 1996 with a full 10-week, locally-presented class program. For the last two years the program has included eight mentors and a mentor coordinator.
The mentor coordinator, a middle manager providing leadership to the mentors, works with the Extension agent in selecting veteran volunteers to be mentors and in mentor training. He provides assistance to mentors during the class. Finally, he structures the training that mentors give volunteers as they start working in the Extension Service office.
New mentors, working in pairs, are matched with six newcomers. The assignment is done geographically as much as possible to reduce the costs of long-distance phone calls.
The first mentor duty is to call newcomers and welcome them to the program. The caller has a list of things to say including reminders of when and where the first class is held, what readings need to be done ahead of time, and what the new member needs to bring to class. Mentors also able to answer questions.
Toward the end of the first class, time is allocated for the mentors to meet personally with their assigned class members to help build relationships. Thereafter, the mentors only call new class members when they've missed class or when important information needs to be shared. (For example, class is canceled at the last minute due to bad weather.)
During the 10-week class time, the mentors take turns attending class and correcting their class members' homework and exams. This reduces the time that mentors need to commit. Correcting homework assignments keeps the mentors in touch with how class members are doing. If they notice that their students are having major problems, they contact the supervising agent and discuss the situation.
After the 10 week class program is over and the volunteers are ready to go to work, the mentors provide a three session training program on how to answer questions in the Extension office. During these sessions, the mentors work beside the new volunteers as they answer their first questions and become familiar with office paperwork and routine.
Retention of new volunteers has been much higher since the mentor program was introduced. Before the program was introduced in 1993 approximately 50% of the new volunteers completed the class and their voluntary service commitment. Since 1993, 38 of 51 or 75% of volunteer have completed their commitments and many have gone well beyond the minimum commitment of time. Over 5000 hours was donated by Master Gardeners in 1996. Six paid a fee in lieu of their voluntary time because of new job assignments. Nearly all of the others could not complete their service commitment due to illness or moving from the area.
Introducing the full 10-week class schedule in Lincoln County would not have been possible without participation of the mentors. The supervising Extension agent is responsible for many program areas and did not have the necessary time available. With their help, the program has been successful, as evidenced by comments of new class members who have universally described the program as providing them with excellent support. Several mentioned that it should be a model for all adult education.
Veterans serving as mentors have also commented that they have enjoyed their experiences. One frequently mentioned reason was that they more quickly developed friendships with new volunteers than they would have otherwise.
Information and skills gained through experience are effectively transferred to new volunteers helping make their job easier. The mentor program also serves as an excellent mechanism for involving new volunteers in Master Gardener chapter activities.