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Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Notes from an NGO start-up

Mentor Me India (MMI) is a Bombay-based NGO working in the space of mentoring. We match, support and measure progress of structured mentoring partnerships where the mentees are 9 to 15-year-old children in low income communities and the mentors are professionals looking for meaningful volunteer work. Our work is driven by our mission: to empower children in low income communities to grow to their full potential through enduring one-to-one partnerships with strong role models. We currently support over 400 mentor-mentee pairs across 12 locations in Mumbai, and are building plans to become a national organization in the next five years. To find out more about our work, please visit the website or write to us at info@mentormeindia.org.

It is exactly four months since I joined the MMI team, and now is a good time to summarize my impressions from this time. It had seemed like an unconventional move, the transition from an organization with a long history of public health work to an innovative NGO start-up. But time has shown that following my instincts may have been a good idea. It has been a roller-coaster – four months of exhilarating successes and heart-stopping worries - but every day has been satisfying, intellectually as well as emotionally. I've spent a lot of time struggling with the jargon (so what is the difference between a “group mentoring session” and a “mentor-training session” and an “induction session” again?) and figuring out priorities. But there are events that stand out, and the four month anniversary is a good time to record some of them:

“These children have changed in ways that I never expected”
17 April 2016: I met Ashlesha Chitnavis, the CEO of Udaan, an NGO where MMI has been supporting a mentoring program since January 2016. We remind mentors that 6 months is too early to notice visible change in their mentees, and that it is important to be patient, but Ashlesha’s enthusiastic approval made my day: “If you had told me, six months ago, that I would see Vivek coming to class, not throwing things, and actually asking the teacher a question, I would not have believed you. I don’t know what Vinesh (Vivek’s mentor, who works with L&T) did, but the boy has been transformed. And he’s not the only one”. When a school partner is keen on enrolling more children as mentees, we know we’re doing something right.

My first mentor orientation session
4 June 2016: Around the time I was interviewing for the ED’s role, I was also interviewed to be a mentor (my mentee is an 11-year-old girl who lives in a slum in the western suburbs). All mentors who clear the interview and background checks go through a half-day “orientation session” before meeting their mentees. This was a fascinating experience, not in the least because of the people I met. There aren’t many places in the city where you have people from such varied contexts - marketing professionals, architects, physicians, actors - connecting and openly sharing anxieties. We learned that the drivers of success in mentoring relationships (trust, mutual respect, dependability) are the same as drivers of success in any relationship; we learned that the one-to-one mentoring we had signed up for would include multiple supporters– the mentees’ parents and the MMI team, among others.

“I ran in the pinkathon – it was the best day”
9 July 2016: the day I was introduced to my mentee. Mentors and mentees are matched through a simple algorithm and meet each other in group settings the first few times. MMI does this in style – as mentors came in, they got name tags with cryptic drawings (I had a tree and Prashanth had a pencil next to his name). The kids seemed more confident than the mentors, who were a little overwhelmed by everything they learned at orientation. It took Priyanka (not her real name) less than a minute to find me: “You have a tree next on your nametag, and so do I. That means you’re my didi.” Our small talk was effortless. We learned that we both like running (she ran the pinkathon last year!) more than dancing. When I asked her why she signed up for the program, she said: “You will be my didi, you will teach me to speak English, and you will make me more confident”. I hope to do all that and more.

“My mentee has given me more than I will ever give her”
10 July 2016: “Graduation” for the mentor-mentee pairs who were matched in Summer 2015, was as heart-warming as one would expect. What repeatedly came up was that mentors were convinced that their lives had improved after they became role models to children who, in spite of all their difficulties, approach life with nothing less than perfect joy. The mutual trust, respect and affection was palpable – and we hope will lead to lifelong friendships which will change the life trajectories of these children.

“I want all 70 of my children to be healthy and successful”
16 July 2016: The induction session (the day when mentors and mentees are introduced to each other) at the Navi Mumbai center was a strange mix of hilarity and sombreness. Our NGO partner here is an orphanage run by pastor Manoj and his wife Priya whose story is so interesting that it will make a book one day. About a decade ago, this middle class couple decided that they had had enough of feeling sorry for children they saw begging in the street, went ahead and adopted four orphans. They barely had enough to make rent, but they optimistically decided that things would work out. And as often happens, they did. Their home grew into an orphanage which is now a registered entity with a staff of 12, and currently supports nearly 70 abandoned children and orphans. Of these, 28 are 9 to 15 years old, and all of them need mentors. We’ve so far found only half that number, and the pastor has had to take the tough decision to choose the 15 that that most need mentoring. The induction was one of the most energetic that our team has seen, and our only discomfort was that the 13 kids who don’t have mentors yet kept wistfully peeping into the room where the mentor-mentee pairs were writing songs together.

“Positive Closure”
28 July 2016: I was able to speak to the lovely Alejandra Avina who is a match specialist at Boston’s Big Sister organization, which has been matching and supporting bigs (“mentors”) and littles (“mentees”) in Boston for over 60 years. Alejandra generously gave me nearly two hours of her time, and was amazingly helpful. The biggest takeaway from that conversation was the idea of “positive closure” – about how important it is to end all mentoring partnerships on high, positive notes, and not around themes of guilt or abandonment (again, true for all relationships).

Things continue to be challenging. Even before we have finished patting each other on the back for recruiting and matching another fantastic batch of mentors this summer, we realize that the deadline to find a new office space is less than month away. The impact assessment for last year’s mentoring program, the exit interviews for the mentors who have had to leave us, the closure conversations for children whose mentors have discontinued the program, the website, plans for the year ahead, fundraising – there is so much that needs to be done. A friend recently said, “I just have one question for you. Which one of your problems will you chase first?”. It’s a good question; the prioritization of the issues is issue in itself, and one that keeps changing. The good news is that we have managed to build ourselves a team of extremely talented people, and we’re well on our way. 

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