What began as a small experiment in equality and integration eight years ago in Copenhagen has turned into a model for volunteer mentorship programmes around the world.
The idea, the brain child of the Danish Centre for Information on Gender, Equality and Ethnicity (KVINFO), was fairly simple: take 12 accomplished Danish women willing to volunteer a bit of their time, match them up one-on-one with 12 immigrant women new to Denmark, ask them to co-create mentorship plans based on the mentees' goals, and see what happens.
What happened was bigger than anyone expected. With their mentors' support, the mentees learned to navigate the Danish system, found jobs, began new educations, and their Danish networks grew.
Interestingly, the mentors also saw their own professional and personal networks grow. They found new inspiration, insight and satisfaction. A few even changed their own life paths and embarked on new professional and personal ventures.
Just eight years later that little pilot project, called the KVINFO mentor network, has grown to include more than 5000 thousand women from all over Denmark. The free mentorships are available to all immigrant women and daughters of immigrants. Today the network's mentees have roots in 125 different countries and range in age from 18 to the late 60s. In 2007 the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) recognised the KVINFO mentor network as a model integration project.
“The mentees experience a high degree of satisfaction with how their lives develop,” Mia Rosenørn, the network's co-ordinator, told The Copenhagen Post.
“Past data has shown that at least four out of ten mentees who want a job find one during the course of the mentorship. That's a huge win for the mentees,” Rosenørn added.
“But we measure success by how many pairs complete the mentorship cycle – from meeting and agreeing to work together, to planning activities to achieve goals, to achieving some or all of them, and finally bringing the mentorship to a close.” By the end of 2010, 2,725 mentor pairs had met those success criteria.
The KVINFO mentor network's activities have grown to include dozens of workshops, with themes such as negotiating, networking, and how to make the most of a mentorship. Seasonal social events round off the offerings.
“It's important for women to have a big network, and the bigger the better in order to exchange information,” said Rosenørn, who co-ordinates the workshops in addition to matching the mentees with mentors.
The matching process begins with some storytelling, followed by questionnaires and interviews. Then the Mentees and mentors are matched up based on profession, education and the mentees' individual goals. But in the end, Rosenørn said, deciding which two women to pair up often comes down to “a gut feeling” – albeit one grounded in Rosenørn's education in psychology and communication. It is then up to the two women to decide if they have the right chemistry to pursue a mentorship together. If not, the matching process continues.
“Every mentor relationship is different. You learn so much seeing how differently people work together, how they communicate, and how they deal with challenges.”
In recent years the KVINFO mentor network has served as a model for mentor networks in countries like Iceland, Finland, Norway and Morocco, where the focus might be on women's economic development or an entirely different issue than integration.
“We focus on immigrants, but the model works for other groups too. It is now being translated to other countries, groups and goals,” said Rosenørn.
Perhaps the biggest sign of the project's success is that the men are calling for a mentor network of their own.
“We get lots of inquiries asking why we haven't created a parallel organisation for men,” Rosenørn said. “This has naturally got us thinking about that possibility.”