Innovation & Design

Going Global with Online Mentoring


Last winter Lucy Hooberman accepted a challenge. Five months later, from her house in London, she's trying to figure out how to best coordinate the 350-plus volunteers from around the world who have promised to mentor people from developing countries using the tools of the Internet.

The challenge was put forth by Chris Anderson, curator of the TED conferences. Anderson, a British publisher turned philanthropist who now runs TED as part of his New York-based Sapling Foundation, pledged $1,000 toward the most original commitment on Pledgebank.com, an innovative British Web site that helps organize groups of people around conditional pledges (i.e., "I commit to do this, but only if others will help").

Hooberman, whose day job is in New Media Innovation at the BBC, pledged to "mentor a minimum of two people in the developing world in the area of my skills base and expertise, for free, for a minimum of six months (in my free time), in person or via e-mail/Skype."" She added the following condition: "The mentoring connections will be established by a website and database that I am willing to take responsibility for creating—but only if 250 other people will mentor a minimum of two people in their skills."

A WAY TO HELP. Her pledge came at the end of 2005, a year that saw the G8 summit in Scotland, debt relief, the Live 8 concerts, Darfur, Bono's lobbying, and heightened media coverage of poverty. The year also, as Hooberman says, "gave us stark messages about global fragility": the tsunami, hurricanes, and earthquakes. "Humanitarian agencies could not always spend the money, and could not manage the amounts of volunteers who wanted to help out. But that did not stop the public's desire to help in some way."

Many people wanted to make their expertise, time, and experience available, so her pledge resonated with many: 350 people from all over Europe and around the world signed up before the pledge's closing date, offering a very broad set of skills. Even more joined afterward, and inquiries are still coming in.

In February, Hooberman hosted a gathering at the TED conference, an annual event in Monterey, Calif., that attracts top entrepreneurs and investors, Nobel-winning scientists, well-known architects and artists, and a crowd of high-profile innovators and doers. (Disclosure: I collaborated with TED in the past as a producer of their European conference TEDGLOBAL.) During that meeting, many ideas were offered on issues such as how to match mentors with mentees, how to offer both sides a safe and efficient environment in which to interact, what the practical and legal frameworks of the initiative should be, how to organize and distribute the work, and starting small versus starting big.

Kenya's Ory Okolloh made quite an impression, when she stood up and said, "If I'm here it's only thanks to my mentor" and told her story of getting from Nairobi to Harvard and returning to Africa with a law degree and the vision, tools, and intention to improve the state of her country. (Among other things, she is a blogger at www.kenyanpundit.com and just co-founded the political blog www.mzalendo.com .)

MENTORING PARTNERSHIPS. With a small group of "core pledgers," Hooberman has just about used her $1,000 to get the project started under the name Mentoring Worldwide, set up a blog to track its development and keep the discussion going (at mentoringworldwide.org), and has started defining the initiative and the mechanisms needed to make it work. "We want to do what we can from where we are, wherever we are: it is a personal and ethical response to living in an interdependent world; we want to build mentoring partnerships as individuals with individuals and institutions in the developing world," she wrote in her blog.

"Mentoring partnerships" is the operational concept behind Hooberman's project, and collaboration technology is the vehicle: This project will (and can only) run on principles of peer-to-peer collaboration, using cheap or free Internet tools (e.g., e-mail, Skype, blogs, wikis). But Hooberman isn't naive about the challenges.

"I'd love to think I could set this up without having to fund raise in the formal sense, and that we could develop through leveraging the know-how of the group as individuals and as a collective, but I don't believe that this will be a truly cooperative venture in that sense if we want to get it up and running soonish," she said gently during a recent meeting in London—meaning that most people, particularly the kind of people that go to TED, are very busy and only pledged to mentor, not to work on setting up the organization and mechanism.

IT TAKES ALL KINDS. While some will carry a bigger share of the project, at least in this initial phase, and the number of participants may decline over time, she has received a diverse set of offers of support: A world expert on peer-to-peer philosophy living in Northern Thailand, for example, did not pledge to mentor but offered a room in his house and access to an Internet-connected computer for local mentees. A busy advertising executive has delivered a range of logos for the embryonic organization. A U.S. software CEO is offering considerable time and resources to take the idea to the next stage. A techie is hosting the site and helping Hooberman figure out the best way to use the the newer collaborative Internet tools. This shows how multi-layered this project can become, tapping the resourcefulness of people eager to volunteer globally.

Mentoring is a long-established idea, and skills-sharing through the Internet has been tried before. But Mentoring Worldwide has a distinct character. In a recent blog entry, Hooberman wrote, "We are thinking big, but want to start small to test out a number of assumptions about what we can deliver and how, and what the expectation of our mentees might be."

Mentoring Worldwide might get going with only a fraction of those 350 volunteers, with a narrow target to start. But if Hooberman and her friends can figure out a clear and transparent process and a good plan for using those Internet tools efficiently, it may become a test bed not only for sharing knowledge, but also for exploring how to share knowledge, how new technology can (or can't) really help a new kind of international collaborative organization to start and function, how an unstructured group of well-intentioned people can (or can't) make something happen globally without getting lost in heavy bureaucracies.

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