Mentoring in Civil Society Organizations

Satish Patnaik . November 19, 2019

More than 30 lakh civil society organizations (CSOs) exist in India; these are one of the prime job creators for the educated youth. However, the question of how these young professionals are nurtured and find a true vocation after making an informed choice of joining this sector is an area less emphasized. Without any systematic investment in this area, it is very unlikely that there will be significant difference in the quality of professionals and their work. Many CSOs lack resources (both human and money) to invest in grooming youth into leaders of this sector. In this scenario, ‘mentoring relationships’ may be explored as a way toward systematic nurturing and learning. The lessons from the experiences of PRADAN (a CSO working in India), which has incorporated mentoring relationship into its fabric, may show the path.


I ndia has plenty of CSOs; as of September 1, 2015, the data gathered (CBI, India) reveal that we have 30, 81,873 non-governmental organizations (NGOs). These NGOS, or CSOs, often play a significant role in bringing about social change as well as providing vocations to many youth. However, in the last few years, there are news reports highlighting their crumbling stature. This downturn of reputation makes the public suspicious of these organizations and stops young people from opting for social service as vocat ion.

CSOs are usually not-for-profit organizations, registered under the Societies’ Registration Act 1860 in India. They depend upon externals for survival by implementing short- to medium-term projects. Many operate on a small scale with limited infrastructure. A majority of them do not have formal systems of recruitment or a Human Resource Development (HRD) unit. Many of them struggle because of the lack of second-generation leaders, and are run by the founders or their kin. Most of the staff are under duress with project deliverables. The work environment is seldom inspirational, leading to heavy attrition. These circumstances make it very difficult for seniors and newcomers to engage in any developmental relationship. In their quest to be meaningful, CSOs struggle at multiple levels starting from staff capacity building and achieving donor deliverables to creating significant impact with the community.

Although 97 per cent of the CSOs in India say leadership development is vital to their organization’s success, a belief that is echoed by funders ( In reality, CSOs lack the required resources and/or approach for leadership and professional development.

There is great need for an approach that can be adopted by most of the CSOs, with their existing limitations, to equip their staff. The publications of CSOs invariably talk about capacitating different sections of society. All of us will agree that mentoring a section of people in society often uplifts their life. Similarly, organization development research across the world also vouches for successful mentoring relationships among colleagues to assist them in imbibing the culture of an organization, learning the ropes; increasing career satisfaction and influence; and decreasing turnover rates [1]. Clearly, this indicates that there is a crying need for setting up mentoring relationships in CSOs.

In order to set up mentoring relationships in CSOs, we need to answer the following three questions.

  • What is the nature of mentoring relationships?
  • What role should organizations play in fostering mentoring relationships?
  • How helpful will it be in a long run?

Let’s try to answer these, based upon the experience of PRADAN.

What is the nature of “mentoring relationships”?

M entoring itself entails many aspects such as supporting, comforting, guiding and confronting to help the mentee. Interestingly, in CSOs, these practices are the base of their work; however, these are rarely applied for the growth of their own staff institutionally. This paradox can be addressed by developing the practice of mentoring within colleagues. Such formal investments are crucial for newcomers to understand the technicalities of their work and develop human processual skills. Such skills improve the work environment significantly.

Usually, a mentor is a senior staff with considerable work experience or expertise. New entrants often seek guidance from them. The seniors too get feedback useful for their own growth from newcomers. When formally established in an organization, this mentoring relationship addresses the needs of new entrants/apprentices and seniors/mentors. Any senior member in a CSO may play the role of a mentor to the newcomers.

When this is practised regularly, the apprentice gradually turns into a master and nurtures future newcomers. The cycle then continues. In PRADAN, all the mentors were once apprentices and were formally nurtured by their mentors. Hence, they value mentoring. Almost all the newcomers have a sense of being accepted as equal colleagues. This is very important for CSOs that aspire for equality in society.

Mentoring relationships are by nature non-judgemental, dyadic and reciprocal relationships. This relationship blooms with the investment and commitment of both the parties. Usually, during mentoring, both the mentor and the mentee reinforce, critique and establish the organization’s values and ethics. This is very useful for the organization because the climate is being constantly improved with the feedback, and the employees feel valued by the organization. The efficiency of the staff and the quality of work improve tremendously owing to the introduction of mentoring relations.

What role should organizations play in fostering mentoring relationships?

M entoring relationships impact the attitude and behaviour of the staff as well as the climate and culture of the organization. Hence, these require a supporting environment and regular investment in enhancing the skills and capabilities of the professionals. For this, CSOs may incorporate formal programmes for senior colleagues on the need for mentoring and the desired climate-culture. This involves certain costs. The organization may also opt to provide a conducive environment for team work and encourage learning by doing. This may require changes in work policies. This stance, although time-consuming, has considerable impact.

Many studies indicate that, irrespective of formal programmes, when learning is explicitly valued (that is, it is permissible to make a mistake), professionals feel excited about taking time to coach and mentor others [2]. Therefore,the creation of a learning environment as a culture is essential for all CSOs. This means the leadership must create space in the hierarchy of the organization for freedom of expression, scope for questioning, opportunity for committing mistakes and encouraging team work.

Insights from helping relationships in practice

T here are many ways in which organizations across the world incorporate mentoring. PRADAN, the CSO in which I work, encourages mentoring by working in teams, having different formal men tor positions for the growth of professionals and organization development. For this article, I will only highlight PRADAN’s apprenticeship programme, rolled out in 1991. The central idea was that professionals (with at least four years of field experience in PRADAN) will help new entrants to acquire perspective, basic skills and make informed choices. These trained professionals, also known as field guides (FG), work as team members with the apprentices (the apprenticeship period is of one year). FGs counsel, extend friendship, accept, provide handholding support in work and act as role-models for apprentices. Their relationship is non-evaluative, that is, they do not grade each other for any official purposes during the apprenticeship period.

In PRADAN, the mentoring relationship is initiated when the apprentice joins; towards the end of the first year, the relationship reaches its peak. Sometimes, due to attrition (various reasons—predominantly mismatch with career goals, and compatibility with team) and with the completion of the apprenticeship, the relationship goes through the phase of separation. Many FGs, however, continue to remain in touch with their mentees. Many final reports by apprentices emphasize that the mentoring relationship often transcends into the personal and overall growth of both the parties, and changes their world view.

Team members in PRADAN support each other because the climate for learning is maintained. Providing feedback, supporting each other, seeking help and team work are some of the common practices that boost mentoring in PRADAN teams. Another opportunity for mentoring is the Field Guide Forum (FGF) - a peer forum of FGs to sharpen their skills, where I found peers, who are not in the same team but are interested in each other’s growth. This reflects the spread of the mentoring behavior and attitude across the organization.

By 2018, more than 2000 educated youth have undergone the apprenticeship programme and have joined PRADAN or the development sector on completion of their apprenticeship. Since 2012, PRADAN has also begun to run a two-year, praxis-based M.Phil. programme with Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), wherein fostering mentoring relationships is a key feature. So far, up to 2017, 121 students had enrolled for M.Phil. Development Practice.

Mentoring relationships benefit both mentors and the organization

M entors get benefits such as improved job performance, career success, revitalization, recognition by others, a loyal base of support from their mentees, and a sense of personal fulfilment and satisfaction. Other cross-sectional research has found that these benefits are associated with increased job satisfaction, deeper organizational commitment and accolades for the organizations.

On the personal front, mentoring relations help an individual find herself in others. By mentoring the other, she gets the opportunity to confront her own assumptions, beliefs, ways of working and even personal integrity. By bringing about changes in these, she inculcates humility.

The FGs in PRADAN narrate their experience as transformational. They are confident as leaders and team members find them inspirational. At least, 25 PRADAN-groomed professionals have formed their own CSOs and adopted many aspects of mentoring relationships in their organizations. Simultaneously, PRADAN has evolved as an institution known for competent professionals and excellence in work. Deep Joshi, the co-founder received Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2009 for PRADAN nurturing people for change. PRADAN was ranked first in the NGO category of India’s Best Companies to Work for 2010 by Great Place to Work Institute and the Economic Times. PRADAN received the Best Social Enterprise of the Year Award in Business Standard Annual Awards 2018.

In an internal consultation meeting of PRADAN in 2017, 61 FGs participated and elucidated attributes of the desired state of guiding/mentoring. An extract of it is given below, which may help to reflect the status of mentoring in any organization.

When an organization strives for excellence, it must aspire for a desired state of mentoring. In the desired state of mentoring:

  • The overarching/superordinate purpose must be clear to the participants.
  • The mentor should be an inspirational co-traveller. She is approachable, she facilitates and also lives the values and ethics of the organization for the newcomer.
  • The newcomer must be inquisitive, open to new ideas, empathetic and fearless.
  • The work environment is open, fearless, transparent, inspirational and must focus on collective learning.


With the changing donor-scape and ever-changing expectation of communities, CSOs are now supposed to have highly skilled staff to help the organization function at its best. Hence, it is time to shift gears and move to the strategic aspects of HR, being more human processual and transformational in approach. The Companies Act 2013 has formulated Section 135, Companies (Corporate Social Responsibility) Rules 2014 and Schedule VII, which prescribes mandatory provisions for companies to fulfil their CSR. Under this, there is heavy support for implementation. Companies must feel encouraged to value mentoring in CSOs and provide necessary support to them for best results in the community.

1 T. A. Scandura, T. A. and R. E. Viator. (1994).Mentoring in Public Accounting Firms—An Analysis of Mentor-Protégé Relationships, Mentorship Functions, and Protégé Turnover Inten-tions,Accounting Organizations and Society, 19: 8, pp. 717–734.

2 Kram, Kathy E. (Dec. 1983). Phases of the mentor relationship, Academy of Management Jour-nal(pre-1986),26: 000004;pg. 608.



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