Side by side: How mentoring could be the key to staff retention

With recruitment in the charity sector at an all time low, organisations are looking for more ways to retain employees and lure staff into the sector. Could mentoring be one of the answers? Melissa Moody explores.

The recruitment crisis within the third sector has been well publicised by now, with charities reporting issues relating to retaining and hiring staff. Unable to keep up with rising wages, they’re having to find ways new ways of keeping up with the private sector. Could mentoring be an easy solution to the problem?

National mobility charity, Career Ready, believes mentoring could be used more openly within the sector than it currently is. “Over the last 10-15 years, there has been a proliferation of charities offering mentoring for young people. What is lacking is the same offer for those working in the third sector, where navigating a career is not a linear pathway,” explains a spokesperson for the charity.

When Charity Times began looking for people who had been mentored, or been a mentor themselves, the response on Twitter was astronomical; proving that mentoring is more common than people advertise.

Career Ready notes the same thing, claiming many charities offer either formal or informal mentoring schemes in the workplace, especially with younger colleagues, “but it is certainly something that should be expanded upon across the wider sector.”

A new learning pathway

Mentoring, despite its popularity, is still not widely promoted as a viable solution to recruitment and retainment issues, yet its benefits are undeniable.

“Mentoring provides people with insight and guidance, which is personalised to their own
development, and which can be facilitated outside of a line management relationship,” explains Career Ready.

“It can be especially valuable for young people looking to build their career and for those adapting to new roles, as it can provide a means of developing new skills, navigating the challenges of a workplace, and learning from the experience of someone who has been down a similar path before.”

Clare Laxton, director of communications and influencing at Pause, speaks highly of her experiences as both a mentor and mentee. “Obviously the point of being mentored is to learn something, but I always learned something as a mentor too.”

Laxton started her mentoring journey based on recommendation from one of her old bosses, who helped her to find a formal mentoring arrangement. “It really helped me understand where I wanted to get to. I think it also gave me a bit more sense of the wider environment that’s bigger than the charity you work in at that particular moment in time.”

Now Laxton mentors others within the sector, using her own experiences to inform and guide her mentee. “One of the things that I did, which I now do with people I mentor, is really try to pin down what’s important to you, what your values are and how that feeds into your work, what sort of thing you want to do.”

She’s found there’s often two sides to mentoring. One is being a mentor with a specialism in her type of charity work: “some people are looking for help with campaigning, policy development, that sort of thing”. The other side is the people who are thinking about what to do next; addressing challenges such as how to build their skillset.

Paul Moore, director of fundraising and marketing at Winston’s Wish found mentoring "massively helpful”. In his current role, there isn’t anyone ‘above’ him to lean on, which “can be quite a lonely place.” As his first director role, a mentor relationship has meant that he’s been able to get somebody else’s opinions and see how someone else would handle that

“It’s leaning on somebody who’s been there before, somebody who’s learned those lessons already. For me, a mentor will always help you avoid the mistakes they’ve made,” adds Moore.

Changing dynamics

Mentoring can also help to tackle a lack of diversity in individual charities and across the wider sector. Some leaders have suggested that if individuals see others like them – people who share the same disability, race, socio-economic background, sexuality, gender etc. – and are mentored by them, then it could encourage them to work in the sector.

“If someone is of the same background as you and is in a senior role, that type of representation can provide motivation for people to take up more senior roles. Or even having a mentor who is experienced showing that belief in you is an encouragement,” says the Career Ready spokesperson.

Laxton agrees. She suggests perhaps because people don’t often talk about mentorships, they can seem inaccessible for some. “Could we create an open mentoring scheme?” She questions. “Making sure its accessible for people is so important. I’m a white, sort-of middle-class woman and I recognise that I don’t represent a lot of people’s experiences, so we need to look at how we get diversity in mentors as well. We should encourage people to share their learning and experiences with others,” she says.

“I can see the link between mentoring and mentees and diversity and inclusion,” acknowledges Moore when asked if mentoring could help with diversity. “I can see that there would be a good level of challenge in that space, challenge some of those stereotypes and ideas.

“But do I think more mentoring would result in a cultural change around diversity and inclusion? Probably not.” He and his mentor are ‘very similar’, he adds, but if mentees see mentors that are from the same background as them, that could help.

However, the experience, for both sides, could also encourage learning and a wider understanding of difference perspectives – which could aid in encouraging diversity. “You get an understanding on how different people approach things,” says Laxton. “I think it’s so important to see different views and opinions from other people, weather you’re a mentor or mentee.”

Moore agrees, adding that it can also help to acknowledge how far you’ve come. “When I’ve mentored, I’ve looked at mentees and thought, ‘I remember having this exact conversation 5/6/7 years ago.”

Looking ahead

So how can mentoring play into the sector’s current recruitment crisis?

Career Ready points out that promotion opportunities within a charity can be few and far between. As such, many people struggle to move on from a role or move upwards internally, causing them to become disengaged at work.

“Mentoring can provide the spark that individual needs to help identify their support needs and how their charity can respond accordingly,” adds the spokesperson. “It’s also a great way for boosting team wellbeing and engagement within the workplace, creating links between team members and making them feel valued.”

Moore notes that there’s also a lot of emphasis put on young people in mentoring, but it’s something that you can constantly have. “When you get to the most senior levels can be when you feel a bit stuck [...] You can feel like you don’t know the answers or feel like you can’t admit you need additional support because you’re supposed to be in control.

“I think that’s when you need to swallow your pride. We’re all human, it doesn’t matter what my job title is, I can still learn from somebody else.”

So if someone wants to be a mentor, or mentee, how can they go about it? Career Ready suggests that as well as checking if your workplace has a scheme, look for schemes in the wider sector.

“But it can also be a case of reaching out to someone in your network who has achieved what you aspire to.” Your line manager might also be able to connect you to someone in their network, particularly if they’re more established within the sector.

A formal arrangement gives boundaries, and both sides know what to expect, which both Laxton and Moore found worked well. “You’ve got ideas of what you want to achieve with a mentor, and then they’ve also agreed to those objectives,” Moore explains. It doesn’t have to be a constant stream of communication either. Moore suggests that there’s peaks and troughs to the way he uses it, as things come up – expected and unexpected.

Overall, there is no doubt that mentoring could be a good option in the sector. It already appears popular, but accessibility could be opened up to make it widespread. Having a strong learning and development operation is more attractive than some charities realise, yet essential for real retention.

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