Posted December 3, 2008

 
 
Being an Online Mentor: A Real Relationship, A Real Commitment
(What I've Learned as an Online Mentor)
 

One of the most sought-after online volunteering activities by potential online volunteers is mentoring another person via the Internet. But while people may desire to make a difference in someone's life by working together online, they also often have a misconception that mentoring online takes far less time and commitment than traditional, onsite volunteering. This is yet another myth of online volunteering.

Mentoring someone online takes real time and commitment. The work required for online mentoring doesn't happen only at the most convenient time for the volunteer; the mentor has to schedule real time for mentoring to happen regularly, and for questions and comments by the person being mentored to be addressed promptly. A mentoring relationship can actually cause harm to the person to be mentored if the volunteer does not make the relationship a priority, and makes the person to be mentored feel forgotten or not of great importance.

I have been an online mentor several times:

How did I become involved in these online mentoring experiences? I sat up the Sanchez Elementary School Online Mentoring Program myself, and wanted to experience the program as a mentor as well. I read about the three women bloggers projects on one of the various online communities with which I'm involved, and contacted each to become involved. I responded to a request for volunteers from Open University in their student or alumni magazine (I forget which). I set up the latest experience mentoring the graduate student in Afghanistan myself, before I left the country after working there for six months in 2007.

The most satisfying relationships for me have been the one-on-one exchanges, where I am working with and focused on just one person. In such online relationships, I feel like I'm not only making a real difference, but also building a very real relationship. The one-to-many exchanges are worthwhile, but it's the one-on-one relationships that have been most satisfying for me, personally, and that I feel that I see real results because of the online exchanges.

Not every mentoring relationship has been successful. In one program, those to be mentored seemed unclear about what the purpose of the program was for, and their messages to our private communications platform didn't seem to have any particular focus. In another program, the mentoring relationships ended when the program ended and the private communications platform was discontinued, much to the disappointment and even sadness of the students involved; for them, their mentors "disappeared." And in another program, the start of the exchanges was delayed, and when they finally started, I was far from my computer.

For all of these online mentoring experiences, what has been most important for me to be successful as a volunteer mentor are:

So far, all of my online mentoring experiences have been via written communications and have been asynchronous rather than synchronous; mentors, and those to be mentored, don't have to be online at the same time. This is all done usually via a special password-protected online platform, so that exchanges are private and can be easily monitored. Sometimes, this platform hides the identities of the mentors and those to be mentored; we know each other only through "handles" or user name; the reason for such a system, is for online safety -- messages are monitored so that there is no way for participants to contact each other outside the program's communications platform.

Would video work in online mentoring? Certainly, provided that all participants:

If you are interested in creating an online mentoring program for young people or adults, see the Virtual Volunteering Project's information online mentoring -- still the most comprehensive information available, even though this information has not been updated in many years.

 
 

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