How to Start a Mentoring Program

A Short Guide for Mentoring Program Managers

Mentoring programs are all the rage these days. Though “mentoring” can take on different meanings, for the purposes of discussion, we assume you’re looking for a way to connect more experienced people with less experienced people to make a difference, whether that be more clarity toward a career decision or transferring job-specific knowledge.

This is a “Quick-Start” guide with the five steps to start a program to ensure maximal chances of success.

Step 1. Identify Organizational Level Goals

To run a mentoring program costs non-trivial amounts of money, time, and personnel. Before you start thinking about recruitment strategy or hiring staff, spend a few hours pulling together a higher-level view.

The key question you need to answer is this: “What is the purpose of starting a mentoring program?”

Be as specific as possible as you answer this question.

Identifying the organizational and program goals at the outset is crucial because these goals direct your compass for marketing, recruitment, fundraising, and all the operational decisions down the road. It is thus important to take the time to talk to your stakeholders about the necessity and benefits of a mentoring program. Some questions worth asking them are listed below.

  • Why is mentorship important for our organization?
  • Why do you think now is the right time for a mentoring program?
  • What kind of impact do you expect from the mentoring program?
  • Who will benefit from the program?
  • How and how often should participants meet, and why?
  • How much are you willing to spend for a mentoring program? (This number will influence how you set up your program structure, staff involvement, and mentoring activities.)

Getting Consensus

Before starting a program, be sure to gain a consensus about the need to start a mentoring program.

If your department, university, association, division, or company has a vision to cultivate mentoring at the institution level, then getting decision makers on board won’t be too much of an issue. However, if they don’t share your vision or mentoring is not a priority, they will be less inclined to provide the resources that you need.

It is difficult to sustain a program in an organization in which you are the only champion of mentoring. Without a succession plan, your program may be discontinued should you leave, leaving participants in the wind. Furthermore, having spent resources and goodwill on the program, an organization will likely be wary of future attempts to start a mentoring program.

Besides decision makers, participants need to be on board as well. Nothing is worse than starting a program that the participants themselves don’t feel they need. Running focus groups will not only help you ferret out what their actual needs are, but it will also build up a base of dedicated users that can help provide the momentum in the critical early stages of the program.

Sometimes stakeholders will want a more detailed plan before buying in. In that case, proceed through the next section first before coming back to this one.

Step 2. Identify Program Level Outcomes

Closely related to but different from organizational level goals are program level outcomes. Whereas goals identify the final result, they are composed of one or more outcomes—practical changes that occur as a result of the mentoring process. For example, if a university’s goal is to improve graduation rates, one outcome of a mentoring program might be a greater enthusiasm about school in the participants. It can be useful to categorize outcomes into:

  • Attitudinal
  • Behavioral
  • Career
  • Health
  • Motivational
  • Relational12

Think about your outcomes. What would success look like for your program? Sure, you can measure match rates, but that says nothing about the quality of the mentoring relationships or whether the relationships contribute to the overall organizational goals. In the course of running the program, you’ll need to combine anecdotal feedback with numeric data to get a fuller picture of how your mentoring program is going. If you have a clear idea about what you’re measuring (a.k.a. your outcomes), then you’ll know what questions to ask on surveys and which metrics to use during reporting.

Step 3. Determine Program Structure and Activities

Once you have identified your program goals, the why, the next step is to outline the plan to get there, the how. The plan includes a number of intertwined decisions, all based around a “theory of change.”3 In other words, what is your theory or belief about how people will be different as a result of participating in your mentoring program? What will they do together that will create this difference?

Specifically, there are two broad categories of questions you want to consider:

  • Program structure. What type of program structure is the most conducive to making progress on these outcomes? Do you want to encourage quick contacts for Q&A? Or are you aiming for a long-term relationship akin to an apprenticeship? Or perhaps a hybrid option that caters to both needs?
  • Activities. What type of activities do you want or expect mentors or mentees to participate in? Should they adhere to a monthly schedule or give each pair or group the choice on how often to meet? Should they meet in person or virtually? Is communication by email sufficient? Is there a curriculum for them to go through? Or do you want them to work on a project together? Are participants expected to attend an orientation? Quarterly dinners? End-of-the-year banquet?

The direct outputs of these activities ought to contribute to the outcomes you outlined earlier. If not, reconsider whether that activity is necessary.

Don’t be shy about asking other programs for advice and tips when starting your own. You are in the mentorship business after all, so seeking mentors is quite appropriate. While programs can vary widely in their goals and structures, having a fuller picture of the landscape will help you foresee potential challenges and options when you need to change course in your own program. If you’re a university or a department, ask other more established mentoring programs for the lessons they’ve learned.

Step 4. Count Your Costs

Evaluating what resources you need is a critical step in planning. We categorize them into resources needed for the direct management of the program, resources for the participants, and external support. If the budget has not already been established, now is the time to think about it.

Management Resources

  • Depending on the involvement expected of the program manager in the running the program, you may need to hire assistants.
  • Research has shown that perceived availability, ongoing support, and accountability are crucial roles played by the admin.4 Do you need training on counseling or conflict resolution?
  • If you’re planning to run a program of a hundred people, using spreadsheets is cumbersome, and keeping track of matches, interactions, and following up with participants is even more cumbersome. Do you need software to help with that?

Participant Resources

  • What do mentors and mentees themselves need during the program? You may want to purchase books, license training or educational content, or develop or borrow resources such as a mentoring agreement template.
  • You may decide to provide perks (such as $5 gift cards for coffee or meeting reimbursements).
  • Group events may require renting a venue and staffing.

External Support

  • While not strictly monetary, you may need to involve auxiliary partners before you launch. For example, you might want help from the marketing department to create promotional materials, or you might need to coordinate with class reunion organizers to launch at an opportune time.
  • If you need software, picking a vendor itself can be a time-consuming and convoluted process. Vendors need to be approved by Legal, Procurement, IT… all these take time, so be sure to get the process started early!
  • Integration of a new software system with existing systems requires additional work.
At this point, you should have a clear enough idea about the scale of your program and the support needed to run it to present your vision to your stakeholders to get buy-in from everyone. This will ensure that you have organizational support so that when challenges come up in the mentoring program, the program isn’t canceled at the whim of the powers that be.

Step 5. Launch

Launching a program is a beast of its own. When it comes time to publicize your program, all the pieces will need to be in place.

If you are planning to run a structured program, we recommend starting with a pilot involving a limited number of users so you can really focus on their needs.

If it’s an unstructured program, we recommend a soft launch by publicizing it to a small segment of the population to test reception and to observe general patterns. For example, you may find that the engagement is lower than you’d like, which may prompt you to tweak your approach. If using an online platform, it gives you time to refine your messaging or your email campaigns.

Whatever the case, make sure expectations to participants are clearly communicated. This is one of, if not the most important factor contributing to participant satisfaction. Make sure to address:

  • How often they are expected to meet
  • How long they are expected to be in the relationship
  • What they should do if their partner is not responsive
  • Where to give feedback
  • What to do if they feel no “chemistry”

The importance of mentors and mentees having consistent expectations cannot be overstated. If mentees are asking for jobs but mentors are expecting to help with general career advice, mentors may feel used when mentees stop communicating because the mentors cannot provide what the mentees are looking for.

By doing a pilot or a soft launch, you’ll be able to iron out enough wrinkles to prepare you for a successful larger-scale launch.

Concluding Remarks

Launching a mentoring program, like launching a rocket, is exciting! But unlike a rocket, which cannot be upgraded and to whose trajectory only minor adjustments can be made after launch, you as a program manager have the opportunity to continue to make significant improvements as the program progresses. Do your best, but don’t try to get it perfect at the outset. As your mentoring program matures, your organization might change its goals, you will learn more about the particular needs of your mentors and mentees, and you’ll encounter challenges you didn’t foresee.

Being open-minded about the possibility of change and learning to adjust will prevent you from running a stale mentoring program. Ultimately, you want to do what’s best for your mentors and mentees.

Further Reading

This article is meant to be a short outline of the process of starting a mentoring program. It barely scratches the surface of all the detailed considerations going into designing a well-functioning program.

We wholeheartedly recommend A Handbook For Managing Mentoring Programs: Starting, Supporting, and Sustaining Effective Mentoring by Dr. Laura Lunsford to program managers serious about delivering quality mentoring programs. This article was written in consultation with the book. As proponents of evidence-based research, we admire Dr. Lunsford’s involvement in the field as a scholar and as a “friendly critic” of the mentoring. Xinspire is proud to partner with her to deliver quality content.


  1. Eby, L. T., T. D. Allen, S. C. Evans, T. Ng, and D. L. DuBois. 2008. “Does Mentoring Matter? A Multidisciplinary Meta-analysis Comparing Mentored and Non-mentored Individuals.” Journal of Vocational Behavior 72(2): 254-67. 

  2. Lunsford, L. G. 2016. A Handbook for Managing Mentoring Programs: Starting, Supporting, and Sustaining Effective Mentoring. New York: Routledge, 65. 

  3. Ibid., 66. 

  4. Ibid., 45.