Bootcamp: Funding Mentorship Programs

On June 24, 2021, the Alberta Mentorship Program hosted our first of two boot camps about funding your mentorship program. Learn tips and strategies to build competitive funding proposals to launch your mentorship program. Our Start-Up Boot Camps are a community learning space to cover important topics for new and growing mentorship programs. Doug Piquette, Executive Director of Edmonton Region Immigrant Employment Council (ERIEC), Bruce Randall, Executive Director of Calgary Region Immigrant Employment Council (CRIEC), and Najib Mangal, Manager-Community Connection Volunteer Program, Lethbridge Family Services lead this bootcamp session.

Finding funding to start and sustain your mentorship program is a common challenge. Doug, Bruce, and Najib have all been successful in funding their mentorship programs and are here to share what they have learned about funding.

The Alberta Mentorship Program is appreciative of the funding from the Government of Alberta through Labour and Immigration, Workforce Strategies. Our program is here to provide information and support to help organizations start mentorship programs.

Start with Good Planning

Before thinking about funding, new mentorship programs need to know their program’s purpose and have a solid strategy.

“Our success has always been built on good planning,” says Doug. “We had no experience in mentorship prior to starting ERIEC. So doing our homework was really important before looking for funding.”

“It starts with knowing who you are as an organization and what you are hoping to achieve,” says Bruce. “If you are not sure what you are doing and just want to add mentorship as another bucket to what you are doing: Don’t. Stop and put your tools down and give it some thought, connect with other people in mentorship and try to understand why you really want to get into mentoring."

Start with doing research locally and looking at the big picture across Alberta and Canada. What does mentorship look like in other areas? And what are the gaps that need to be filled here in Alberta? When starting ERIEC, Doug did focus groups with immigrants, service agencies, and employers.

“We wanted to be sure that we were hitting the mark. We wanted to show that there was support,” says Doug.

This research can demonstrate to potential funders that your program fits a need and that there is support for your program in the community. Mentorship must be community-owned and supported. If it is not, you will have a hard time starting a mentorship program because it will be difficult to find the mentors, mentees, partners, and funders that you need to run a successful program.

“You are not the saviours of the community,” says Bruce. “Don’t assume that a mentorship program is what a community needs if you haven’t had a conversation in the community about mentorship. Make sure that the community understands what you want to do and that they want to be part of it.

When Bruce started CRIEC he did the same research and focus groups, but also had informal conversations and connected to potential community partners. The community you connect to should relate to your program or organization’s purpose and it should have a need that you are prepared to fill. If you are in a smaller city or town, it can be easier because you will know which organizations are central. It could be a library, service or business organization, house of faith, or the chamber of commerce.

If you are adding a mentorship program to existing programming in your organization, it can make things easier. You will already have connections to a community, and you can build on partnerships you already have and talk to clients or participants who already use your services about mentorship.

Read more:

Find the Right Funding Partners

If you are adding a mentorship program to an existing organization, start with the existing funders and partners. They already support your organization’s mission, if mentorship is a good fit for their mandate, they may be willing to extend the funding.

For new programs or if you are looking for new funders, it is wise to take a broad view looking at both public and private sectors for funding. Build a diversified funding base because mentorship is not always part of different government mandates and budgets. The situation in Alberta has been challenging. Recently, ERIEC lost a third of our funding from the province.

“This can shift again,” says Doug. “Sometimes immigrants and employment are a popular notion for governments to be involved with and sometimes they are not. We were lucky that when we started it was something that both levels of government wanted to be involved with.”

This shift has turned ERIEC towards the private sector. ERIEC has not been able to completely recover the funds reduced, but the private sector has stepped up and decreased that gap in funding. Keep a diversified funding base and continually searching for grants and funding partners who might provide sustainable funding.

The best way to find sustainable funders is to find the ones whose mission and vision align with your mission and vision. Be cautious about applying for funding ‘just because.’ If the application is out of your scope and skills it can be detrimental to your long-term goals or reputation if you fail to meet the grant outcomes.

"You don’t want to stretch too much to meet their agenda because it will put a strain on your organization,” says Bruce. “Find out as much about the funder and their needs and how you can meet them. It is finding that sweet spot where the funder goals and your goals meet.”

Ideally, funders will provide some autonomy in funding structure and conditions to suit how your mentorship program already functions. When you can find funders who see how your program fits the needs of your community, you will have longer-term success. The mentorship programs that LFS, CRIEC, and ERIEC have created are all different because they need to suit the needs of their specific communities.

“It was really hard when we lost our funding, says Doug. “But we were able to find likeminded organizations. And the private sector showed up in a way that they have never done before.”

For this shift to work, ERIEC had to be intentional in seeking out funders and funding and not wait for people to come to you.

“I think what Doug and I have been able to do is to build teams that don’t see this as a 9-5 sales job,” says Bruce. “Each person on our team is always talking about the program just in the nature of who they are and how they are.”

It is helpful to write a two-page proposal concept. This document will summarize:

  • Who you are, and
  • What you hope to accomplish.

It is useful to do this outside of a specific funding call. This will allow you to write the proposal concept to determine what funding opportunities are a good fit without being influenced by a specific application or funding partner.

Read More: Determine Who are your Stakeholders

Gather your Data

No one loves to put in the work of doing research and gathering data, but it can make a difference in the success of your funding proposals.

“Start accumulating data because that data is really powerful,” says Doug. “Your funders might want to be involved in something new or innovative but they also want something proven.”

Accumulate the numbers and hard data about the program. Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) is looking for the total number of matches and numbers of mentees who are employed in profession-related fields. But they are also looking for behavioural changes from both mentors and mentees because of mentorship.

“Of 140 matches last year, we had an 83 % success rate. Those mentees had found work or gone back to school in their field. That is a great statistic,” says Doug. “This year we are at 56% and under our 65% marker that is required by IRCC.”

Last year was a difficult year with both the COVID-19 pandemic and a global recession. Outside factors can affect those numbers and ERIEC has found that there can be some understanding and easement in exceptional circumstances.

“We are really proud of our data, but we are also transparent about our data,” says Doug. It is important to be realistic and honest.

Don’t just collect the numbers, collect testimonials, stories, and everything that says anything about the success of the program. Good feedback from participants and partners can be a great way to tell your story in addition to the numbers.

Gathering data can be difficult if you are just starting out with a program and you have no data of your own to add to an application or funding proposal.

If you are starting a new mentorship program, use data from other programs and show how you can build on the success. If you do the preliminary research, you can use information from surveys and focus groups to show that there is a need or a gap in the community that your program will fill.

“You can say, ‘We anticipate these kinds of results,’” says Doug. “When we started, we could draw on the TRIEC (Toronto Region Immigrant Employment Council) numbers and experience as a reference for the potential. Mentorship worked in Toronto, so it should work here too if we use a similar model.”

For ERIEC, the results were small at first and it was a long process of proving their team and their program. If possible, find funders or set expectations that the mentorship program requires time to grow and establish within the community.

“We had the trust and faith of the funders in the early days,” says Doug. “We had more than a one or two-year period to prove the results otherwise that would have been challenging. The results were small, but they did lay the groundwork for our long-term success."

When LFS applied for funding for their new mentorship program, they were able to use the data from their current programming. They reviewed their database and could see refugees and internationally educated professionals (IEPs) were coming to LFS for support. What they found confirmed there was a gap in services for IEPs.

“We were losing the IEP after one or two visits,” says Najib. “They needed something, and we weren’t providing them with what they needed because we were so focused on refugees.”

This meant that LFS could add actual data to their anecdotal stories to provide evidence that a mentorship program would provide needed services that IEP were looking for.

Looking for data? If your program is looking for statistics and research about mentorship in Alberta, contact ERIEC or CRIEC. They can share data they have accumulated to help you tell the story of Alberta Mentorship with local data in your funding applications.

Read More: Set Up Program Evaluation

Show Funders the “So What?”

“The money shot in the proposal is the ‘so what?’” says Cheryl Whitelaw, Project Manager of the Alberta Mentorship Program. “You need to show how the mentorship program benefits everyone.”

This answer can seem obvious to you, but it is critically important to make that clear in every funding proposal. To get funders on board, you need to clearly show why your program matters and how it will make a difference.

“About two years in we thought we knew what we were doing,” says Bruce. “Then we did a mentor focus group and asked, ‘Why are you mentoring?’ We got the opposite answer we expected. We were working on an assumption for two years and never checked that assumption.”

What the focus group revealed was that mentors were less interested in recognition and awards than CRIEC assumed. Instead, they wanted network with other mentors. They wanted to learn about other cultures and about the community. Understanding this changed everything about how CRIEC approached recruitment and it taught them an important lesson.

“We ask employers, what is the big rock in your road?’” says Bruce. “It is so much talking and coffees. Never make an assumption about anyone or anything.”

CRIEC talks to their community partners five or six times a year with different themes to gain a better understanding of what they want and need from a mentorship program. These conversations ensure these partners will think about CRIEC whenever they have a client who is thinking about mentorship. It also helps CRIEC know how to frame their funding proposals to meet the needs of different kinds of funders.

ERIEC always presents the proposal business case in a way that matters to each funder. Government, businesses, and social organizations all have very different motivations for funding a project. You need to speak the language of the group that you are working with. You need to highlight your mentorship program in a way that connects to the needs and motivations of each funder. There is no one-size-fits-all proposal.

“What is the business case?” says Doug. “If we are talking to a business, we don’t talk in the social terms that we would with a social organization.”

When you start writing the proposal, start with the questions:

  1. Who are the funders?
  2. What will they want to see from the grant proposal?

“We wear a lot of hats and have to switch roles for different stake holders,” says Bruce. “We need to know what hat to wear at each time. That is the magic of being in all those conversations. That leads to funding.”

This is not about changing your mentorship program for each funding proposal but using the right language and highlighting the specific aspects of your program that make sense to them.

“At the end of the day we want to change the hearts and minds of employers so they can see that this is an awesome talent pool they can tap into it,” says Bruce.

“We have to be savvy enough pick up on the nuance,” says Bruce. "If they don’t need employees at the moment, the conversation could be about diversification, equity, and inclusion in the workplace or of employee development.”

“Our mentorship program is new, and the employer conversation is the ongoing challenge,” says Najib.

He has seen that business are becoming more interested in the benefits and social justice of diversity and inclusion, but they do not always fully understand how to incorporate it into their business. LFS can show them how mentorship can help them engage with diversity and inclusion.

“I think it is being patient and consistent with those conversations,” says Najib. “It is about being systematic and strategic. And it is about the passion you bring into the room because that relationship is built on that human dynamic.”

Relationship building is so important even if it doesn’t directly affect the application. ERIEC and CRIEC have both become champions in the community by connecting people and organizations to their mentorship programs and to each other.

“They play a bridging role in every conversation,” says Cheryl. “This shows the power of mentorship. A mentorship program and people who are part of it become the bridge in community. If you can claim that in your community, it will help your application.”

Put Your Passion in the Proposal

The challenge for formal funding applications is that you will need to put all of this into a proposal. How do you put your team’s passion for your program into a written document? How do you persuade when you cannot talk to the funders directly?

"Don’t bury the lead,” says Cheryl. “It is a place to add the passion and to show what we want to improve.”

Make a clear problem and solution statement in the opening of your proposal:

  • The challenge and or gap that we are working on.
  • What we are going to do to solve the problem or fill the gap.
  • Why is important to the community or stakeholders (the ‘so what?’)

“Often we get into the nuts and bolts of how the program works,” says Cheryl. “But funders care more about the why and the impact of what you are doing.”

“Funders want to hear how the needle was moved,” says Doug. “Channel your passion into that.”

When you don’t have a lot of room, it is important to use the language and messaging that your funder will know and understand. Know your audience and what language they are going to use.

“You must define the need, says Najib. “We knew the barriers that IEP were facing.”

When you know what the gap is, you can show how you can fill that gap through mentorship. Doing this requires resources, materials, and services. When you can connect all of these to the needs of the specific funder in your proposal, you can make a strong case. Demonstrate your message through testimonials and quotes from participants and through your data.

“If you know that, then you are a dragon,” says Najib. “You have that punch line, and the funders love that because you’ve done your homework.”

Getting all of this into your proposal becomes even more challenging when there are word counts or even character counts that limit your proposal.

“Rarely can you tell an eloquent story because there are lots of constraints,” says Cheryl. “So it needs to be upfront. For the person who has read 100 proposals, you want them to get that message right away.”

“If you know you are, you speak from the heart. But you also need to bring in the hands and mind,” says Bruce.

It is critically important to scope out the application, gather all the research and speak the truth about your program and capabilities. Then get help writing it if you need help pulling it together.

While writing a recent application for five years of federal funding, Bruce compiled all the information. But when it was done, the application lacked the passion. But this application had a letter count, not just a word count, and there were only a few characters left.

“I wrote at the end, ‘Mentoring works, no if ands, or buts.’” says Bruce. “I think the passion came through.”

We are continuing this conversation on September 30, 2021. Register for our second free bootcamp about Funding for Mentorship Programs.

Developed with support from the Government of Alberta - Labour and Immigration, Workforce Strategies.

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