Volunteer Mentors: The Secret Ingredient for Success of an Online Community
When Connect, Mayo Clinic’s online community for patients and families, started to grow in numbers and activity, I knew we needed to prepare for scalability. Connect is managed by a team of community moderators, who keep the community safe, respectful, trustworthy, and inclusive. While moderation is vital, there’s a lot more to strategic community management keeping us busy. We needed help on the frontlines, so I developed a volunteer program called Connect Mentors.
Who are community mentors?
Connect Mentors are active members of the community who have first-hand experience with a variety of health conditions. They are patients, lay caregivers, and family members who volunteer to participate regularly in the community, introduce members, and spread the word about Connect. They ensure Connect remains a safe, welcoming place for people to talk about their health experiences, ask questions, find support, and share information.
- Patients, caregivers or family members
- Active and regular members of Mayo Clinic Connect
- Passionate about the topics they participate in
- Knowledgeable and compassionate
- Have personal health experiences to contribute to the discussions
- Available and responsive to the groups and discussions they monitor
How do you choose mentors?
I observe member behaviors in the community before they are invited to the mentor program. Are they active and participate regularly? How long have they sustained activity? Are they articulate, supportive, and resourceful? Softer skills are really important too. Do they display good “listening” skills online; in other words, do they meet the members where they are, hear what they have to say, rather than only talking about themselves?
I encourage, thank, and reward members who display the behaviors that promote a supportive and informed community. Before inviting members to become a mentor, I will often send private messages thanking them for how they respond to members. Sending a thank you with no strings attached is a good litmus test, and usually results in an increased commitment to and involvement in the community.
Those I invite to be mentors share the purpose and goals of the Connect community and its members. To paraphrase MacMillan and Chavis (1986), a healthy sense of community means the goals of members match those of the membership as a whole and members should feel they can influence and be influenced by the community. Mentors model community norms that other community members can adopt.
What do you ask volunteer mentors to do?
I do not pre-determine roles for mentors, but rather watch their behaviors and intrinsic motivations (defined by regularity and quality and type of contributions). Mentors shape their own roles, rather than receiving an assigned role. This has several benefits. People are more likely to stay committed to a role of their own choosing. They do it naturally and training is minimal. Instead, you can enhance their natural talents as the community evolves. Additionally, they may develop roles you haven’t thought of that are very beneficial to the community.
As for expected achievements, I set the bar low at first. I send suggested tasks regularly and provide ongoing coaching and tips. Sometimes they are tasks specific to certain mentor, tailored to their skill sets or the engagement levels of the group for which they are responsible.
In general, mentors:
- Welcome and support new members
- Check in on members
- Start discussions and keep them going
- Tell people about Connect within their social networks (on- and offline)
- Work with the community moderators
- Help with testing and contribute to the improvement of the community platform
More often than not, the mentors exceed my expectations.
What are the risks and how do you mitigate them?
Certainly, there can be risks, such as volunteers tipping ownership into entitlement or bringing their bias or agenda into the community. However, most risks can be avoided by setting clear expectations, encouraging desired behavior, and regularly rewarding, nurturing, and coaching.
I created a private group for volunteer mentors and staff moderators to:
- Coach, which usually comes in the form of positive example. I congratulate a job well done, point out particularly good posts or ideas they use in the community, and encourage others to mimic good practices.
- Welcome and integrate new mentors into the group.
- Make announcements of new things coming — they get sneak previews.
- Post calls for user testing, as mentors participate in conception, development, and user acceptance of new concepts, designs, and functionality for the community.
- Co-create things like copy about Connect, blog posts, and agendas for our regular mentor meetings. Anything I do for them, I do with them.
Most importantly, mentors use the private group to connect and build a deeper sense of community amongst themselves and to improve their skills as community mentors. They talk about difficult conversations they may encounter and get ideas from their colleagues. They get support from one another when they feel tapped out or need support because of their own health issues. They also share tips about promoting the community. My favorite thread is about how a mentor uses her Mayo Clinic water bottle to start conversations with complete strangers.
When I go somewhere and I carry water, I use the Mayo Clinic water bottle that Colleen “gifted” to us at the May meeting. Since I live in Michigan, people invariably look at it and ask me why I have a Mayo water bottle. This gives me the opportunity to tell them about Mayo Connect and pull from my purse one of the Mayo Connect info cards and hand it to them. ~Teresa, volunteer mentor, 3,744 posts
Don’t forget they’re patients
We practice self-care. It’s important to remember that the mentors are patients and caregivers caring for others. They occasionally have health issues that limit their participation. Mentors will take pauses and step back from the community for periods of time. Some have chosen to retire. As the community gets bigger and more active, we are increasing the number of mentors to scale our capacity, share the load and avoid burnout. We started with three mentors and have grown to 20 active mentors and seven retired mentors.
Every mentor came to Connect as a member first, usually to seek help and support. While many experience healing in helping others, it is important to remind them that they can continue to lean on other community members in times of need.
What are the benefits?
The benefits of the Connect volunteer mentor program to the community are countless. The mentors are our biggest ambassadors, not only of the community but of Mayo Clinic (and some are not Mayo patients). Ultimately, they are the target users, so their feedback on community developments are priceless and help ensure adoption of any developments to the platform and effectiveness of outreach tactics.
But most of all, mentors are people with lived experience. They are experts by experience. They connect best with their peers best because they’ve been there. You can’t have a thriving community unless people talking, supporting, and sharing real experiences and useful information and building circles of trust. The mentors foster that conversation.
The success of an online community relies on growth (new users), activity (posts and returning or alumni users), and deepening sense of community, trust, and connection. Developing and nurturing a volunteer group of peer mentors contributes significantly to Mayo Clinic Connect’s success. Just look at the growth in numbers and engagement on Connect for the past 18 months since we introduced the program.
Managing a volunteer group takes time and effort. Volunteering must be rewarding for the volunteers, and you have to ensure that it is. Compensation comes in many forms. Make the time to show volunteers they are genuinely valued, appreciated, and respected. Shows the results of their work. And don’t forget, the power of “thank you” goes a long way.