Applying Pragmatism and the Pareto Principle to Mentoring

February 28th, 2019

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the UK (NCVO) recently announced that it was closing its Approved Provider Standard for mentoring schemes, stating it was unable to make the programme both rigorous and affordable. Such a decision was not a surprise to me.

To obtain the standard, an organisation had to meet 10 key requirements through external assessment. An outline of the 10 requirements can be found on NCVO’s website. While a strong case can be made for why all 10 requirements are worthy of analysis, it is easy to see why rigorous assessment of them all could become financially prohibitive for many charities.

More generally, I believe the nature of mentoring poses particular challenges for assessment and evaluation. These include:

• Duration

Mentoring relationships can last months, if not years, and the impact of mentoring can last long after the relationship formally ends. Obtaining baseline data and capturing the longitudinal impact of mentoring is therefore a significant undertaking.

• Breadth of Impact

The scope of mentoring can encompass the whole life of a mentee. Evaluating such breadth constitutes a significant undertaking. Furthermore, the benefits of mentoring can extend far beyond the mentee. In addition to the mentor, the mentee’s and mentor’s friends, family, peer group, staff and organisation may all benefit from the development that mentoring brings.

• Numbers

The process for matching mentees with mentors can limit the scale of mentoring, and programmes involving as few as seven or eight mentoring pairs are not uncommon. With such small numbers, the vast majority of participants need to be evaluated for results to have any degree of statistical significance. This can make evaluation work harder and more intense.

Such factors can lead to assessing a mentoring programme’s quality and impact costing more than its delivery costs. This poses a difficult dilemma, in an age where there is ever increasing scrutiny on charity spending and an insistence that donations have the best possible impact.

So what can be done? For me the answer is pragmatism. With limited resources I would focus on impact and, despite the aforementioned breadth of mentoring, I would prioritise outcomes that are of most value to the mentees, as ultimately mentees are the focus of mentoring. Interestingly, of the 10 requirements assessed for the NCVO’s approved provider standard, only one looked at outcomes. In my view, a greater percentage of resources should be assigned to assessing impact.

Undoubtedly though, how a programme is run provides the foundations for impact. In keeping with the theme of pragmatism, I’d invoke the Pareto Principle to assess a programme’s operational aspects. The Pareto Principle, otherwise known as the 80/20 rule, essentially states that you get 80% of the impact or output from 20% of the input. It is a ‘rule of thumb’ that applies in a great many areas e.g. if you analyse a charity’s income, you’ll often find that 80% of income comes from just 20% of donors. Alternatively, if you analyse sales, it is not uncommon for 80% of sales to be generated by just 20% of the sales team. Essentially, a small number of factors have a disproportionate impact.

Within a mentoring context, I consider there to be three factors that have a disproportionate influence on success:

  1. Securing Great Mentors
  2. Ensuring a Shared Understanding
  3. Incorporating Choice and Time into Matching

Securing Great Mentors

In my experience you need three things to become a great mentor: time, skill and motivation.

(i) Time

Mentoring, like any relationship, needs nurturing and nurturing takes time. Consequently, mentors must know the time commitments up front and feel able to meet them. I wouldn’t underestimate the power of putting pen to paper in this instance e.g. asking mentors to sign a ‘commitment to expectations’. Furthermore, if the expectation is that mentoring takes place during normal working hours, a commitment from the mentor’s organisation is crucial too.

(ii) Skill

A mentor programme should aspire to have great mentors. With such an aspiration, it is only fair that mentors are trained in the skills required to be a great. I believe such training should be compulsory. If a mentor does not have the time to commit to training, it poses questions as to whether they have the time to mentor. There are also ancillary benefits to mentor training. For example, training can prove an effective means of thanking mentors, as good mentor training should prove useful to mentors in their everyday lives, not just for mentoring. Furthermore, training can establish a supportive peer group, which can serve mentors well for the duration of the programme and beyond.

(iii) The Right Motivation

Great mentors give of themselves, with no expectation of anything in return. In reality, the mentor often gains just as much from mentoring as the mentee. However, it’s the mentor’s mindset of ‘being there’ purely for the mentee, that makes mentoring such a special relationship. How do you test for such motivation? The aforementioned requirements help: clear time commitments and compulsory training often filter out half-hearted applicants. Simply asking mentors to explain their motivations can also be very instructive. Applicants can be surprisingly candid and hopefully you can appreciate why the following replies to the motivation question gave me cause for concern:

‘I’ve been told I need to strengthen my CV by adding some voluntary experience.’

‘In my appraisal, I was told I was a terrible listener, so this might help improve my skills.’

Ensuring a Shared Understanding

It is crucial that both mentors and mentees have a shared understanding of what mentoring is and what it is not.* Both parties should also be clear on the practicalities of the programme e.g. what it provides and how long it lasts.

Such things may seem obvious, but they are often overlooked. Don’t assume that because such things are clearly explained on the application form, website, programme guide etc., that they will have been read and understood by all participants. You often need to see the ‘whites of the eyes’ of participants and check for understanding face to face. This brings us to the third and final contributor to success – matching.

*Note: If you’d like to increase your understanding of mentoring, more information can be found on mch’s website.

Incorporating Choice and Time into Matching

There is no one way to match mentors with mentees. Each programme can pose specific constraints with respect to what is possible. However, in my experience successful approaches to matching share two characteristics: choice and time. Both mentors and mentees have a degree of choice in relation to who they want to be matched with. They are also able to spend some time with potential matches, before stating a preference.

Given that mentoring is first and foremost a relationship, this should come as no surprise. You may not have participated in mentoring, but if you’ve ever recruited for a role (or tried internet dating!), you’ve probably come across someone who seemed great ‘on paper’, but not in reality. The same can happen in mentoring, which is why choice and time are so important.


In summary, if you focus on securing great mentors, ensuring a shared understanding and providing choice and time for matching, you’ll be setting the foundations for mentoring success. You can also continue to be pragmatic by learning the finer points of mentoring from programmes that have been evaluated and assessed thoroughly. The NCVO still lists organisations that have gained its standard, so a quick chat with any one of these organisations may prove a very good use of half an hour. mch has also evaluated mentoring programmes in its time and a detailed evaluation it conducted can be found on its website.

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