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Volunteerism, modern mentoring and a sense of making a difference


“The thing that’s so good about the network is that being a mentor is like being given a gift. You get to meet a person who you otherwise would never have got to know”, says Anne, who is mentor for Iranian Sherin in KVINFO’s Mentor Network.

It is definitely not only the foreign women who gain from the relationships set up through the network – the Danish women who volunteer gain also. But what kind of ‘gift’ is it that you receive? And how do voluntary partnerships work in today’s modern and individualistic society?

The Voluntary Work Research Study conducted by the Danish National Centre for Social Research (2003 -2006) shows that approximately one third of the population of Denmark undertakes some form of voluntary work, with numbers continuing to rise. The study also shows that more volunteer work is carried out outside the capital and the distribution of male and female volunteers is fairly equal, though with slightly more male volunteers. Additionally, the study shows that people aged between 30 and 49 constitute the largest group of voluntary workers.

The type of voluntary work undertaken ranges from sitting on public boards and committees to volunteer work within the corporate sector, in addition to regular full-time jobs. In fact, the study indicates that significantly more individuals in full-time employment undertake unpaid work compared with those working part-time.

Volunteerism and community
Many of those who undertake volunteer work are socioeconomically strong, well-educated and well-paid individuals who hold board seats and carry out administrative duties. In the leisure sector (covering sports coaches and trainers), we find the highest concentration of men and a wider range of educational levels.

A very high proportion of volunteers covered in the study are parents who are active in places where their children are: schools and nurseries, music schools, scout and guide organisations and sports clubs.

This broad definition of ‘volunteerism’ means that the figures for, e.g. sports coaches and parents spending time engaging in their children’s activities overshadows the volunteerism based solely on an individual's personal commitment. This segment of volunteerism is of particular interest as it is this which often reflects specific problems within society.

Volunteer work is often carried out in areas where many deem existing public-sector initiatives to be insufficient – not reaching those people who are regarded as having a real need for assistance. As a result, volunteerism acts well as a barometer of what German philosopher Jürgen Habermas called ‘the public sphere’: where a population, based on their subjective and often emotionally charged views, rallies together in a joint commitment which is also political in character.

Freedom of assembly
The right of individuals to assemble freely in organisations and associations is a democratic right and a cornerstone of any modern society. This right was cemented in the Danish Constitution and since then, volunteerism as we know it today has continued to flourish.

Traditionally, volunteer work was associated with local communities – often business cooperatives. This work was a lifelong commitment craving regular contributions. Often, the relationship between provider and receiver was unbalanced, for example in the provision of care to children or the elderly.

Today the commitment of volunteers has assumed new guises as individuals increasingly chooses the character and extent of the volunteer relationship and where the work is often sporadic and short-term.

Commitment today is more global than local in scope, regulated by constant reflection on the part of the provider. The relationship between provider and receiver is also, to a greater extent, characterised by mutuality, or at least a desire to develop a mutual relationship.

Short-lived communities
According to Polish sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, today’s communities, because of what he calls radical individualisation, have become fleeting and short-lived. Coat-peg communities, locker-room communities and carnival communities are some of the terms Bauman uses to describe those communities post-modern individuals get dressed up for. People gather around one limited event and disband shortly afterwards.

Society has become fluid, he says, precisely due to the fact that communities such as family or home communities, which previously were cornerstones for the individual, are no longer as solid as before. Contrary to communities such as businesses, into which you naturally grew as a member of the local community, present-day communities are more like networks.

Bauman believes that networks are functional. He believes the tendency towards networks is problematic as these lack the ethical foundations of a community and, as it is community which gives a person a sense of purpose, he sees networks as having little value.

Mentoring relationships – past and present
KVINFO’s Mentor Network pairs up volunteer Danish women as mentors with women from ethnic minority or refugee backgrounds. Set up in 2003, the network was primarily financed by the Danish Ministry for Integration. Today the Mentor Network has five local divisions located in Copenhagen, Tingbjerg, Århus, Odense and Esbjerg and boasts over 3000 participants across Denmark.

Mentor and mentee are matched on the basis of the KVINFO network coordinator’s evaluation of both parties’ personal and professional interests. The aim is to establish a relationship between two different, but equal, individuals where the relationship will automatically strengthen the mentee’s knowledge of the Danish language and Danish culture.

The objective of the Mentor Network is to provide support for the mentee’s personal competencies with the ultimate goal of assisting her into the Danish labour market. The mentor is expected to be equally as motivated to help, partly through sharing knowledge, (for example regarding the unwritten rules of the labour market or Danish culture in general) and partly by opening up her own contact network to the mentee.

What is a mentor?
In Homer’s Odyssey, Mentor was Odysseus’s friend who oversaw the raising and education of his son Telemachos. Mentor helped Telymachos on his quest out into the world to find his father. During the journey, Telemachos matures from boy to man and becomes able to help Odysseus regain Penelope and Ithaka. The term ‘mentor’ is today used as a general term based upon the original meaning of a man (often older) assisting another man (often younger) on his path through life.

In modern times, the concept of ‘mentor’ in the corporate sector has been used to label the relationship where men support each other in advancing their professional career development and has parallels to the apprentice/apprenticeship relationships common in typically male-dominated blue-collar trades.

A relationship between two individuals
Where KVINFO is concerned, the concept of mentor is associated with a relationship between two women. It could be described as the corporate mentoring-model combined with the unique solidarity between women born out of the women’s rights movement, as well as the tradition for voluntary social work which, like most ‘care-intensive’ work, is typically an area dominated by women.

The twin aspects of learning and focus on personal development of the individual in KVINFO’s Mentor Network are a further extension of the traditional mentor mindset from Homer’s ancient stories, and the belief that an informal pairing of individuals who have each other's interests at heart can mean just as much – if not more – than formal education or training.

This mindset is in many ways similar to the Danish ‘Grundvig’-tradition which is behind the Danish ‘Folk high schools’ movement. Here, learning increases self-understanding and provides insight into Danish history and culture nurturing young people to develop into good and democratic members of society.

These Danish ‘Folk high schools’ function around the principle of informal interaction, storytelling and communal experiences – unquantifiable parameters and non-exam-based teaching.

The difference between mentoring and the current ‘coaching’ wave is that where coaching typically focuses on solving a specific problem, mentoring is broader in scope and oriented towards more general aspects of life.

Making a difference
The desire to ‘make a difference’ is a common thread among the Danish women who have experienced being a voluntary mentor and is also a mindset to be found in all who engage in voluntary social work.

Among KVINFO’s corps of volunteers, this question of ‘making a difference’ is a difficult concept to define clearly. Committing to a mentor relationship requires a high level of personal commitment where, in most cases, it is instantly possible to see how your input makes a difference to the person you have committed to. In addition, it is unquestionable that becoming a mentor also makes a difference to the mentor herself.

The mentors portrayed in the KVINFO Mentor Network’s Handbook for Mentors all express their own increased inter-cultural understanding as a pay-off and emphasise the reward of being able to go behind the prejudices and media stereotypical portrayal of Muslims.

Maysun from Iraq and Rita from Denmark explain that they have “expelled some of their own personal prejudices. Despite being open and with the best intentions on both sides, Rita still had some prejudices about Muslims and Maysun has some about Denmark.” It is through the face-to-face meeting that ordinary human situations become more important than the question of ethnic origin:

“We talk with each other about the things we’d like to talk to other women about. It doesn’t take too long to find out that whether it comes to studying, work, or family, our lives are in many ways the same.”

Rita continues, “By being a mentor, I have gained a good insight into the lives of refugee and ethnic minority women – both here in Denmark and in their home countries. And my view that, as women, we all have more or less the same cares, joys and worries has been reiterated.”

Similarly, Ulla tells of her relationship to Xiaoyi, who came to Denmark from China in 2001: “Both Xiaoyi and I have learned so much from this programme… I think I’ve learned just as much as she has.”

The needs of the mentor
An individual is selected to be a mentee because she needs help to understand – and become part of –a Danish culture. But the mentors also have expectations and needs which must be taken into account.

Post-modern people are individualists, but this does not mean that we do not wish to get involved in relationships with others or our surrounding society. On the contrary, we have an increasing need for significant experiences and we deliberate constantly how we can make the plot of our own life-story as interesting as possible.

As a result, we wish to involve ourselves in things which are immediately relevant to our lives and personal identities. We must consider whether the time invested in voluntary work, for example, is ‘worth it’, bearing in mind that we the individual want to get some form of meaningful experience out of it.

Where the experience of paying money to a good cause does not give us a valuable experience, becoming part of a person’s life, no matter what, is something tangible that we can see and feel. A mentor/mentee relationship can be an amazing experience with insight into a ’closed’ world as the reward.

“More than anything else, it has been the desire to get to know each other socially that has been the driving force behind their relationship. From their very first meeting, conversation turned to each other’s families, eventually leading to visits to each other’s homes. Sherin has actually met Anne’s parents and friends and Anne has heard about Sherin’s family and her visits home to Iran.” (Iranian Sherin and Danish Anne).

A successful meeting with a mentee is a unique and authentic experience which is definitely experienced as being worth the time invested.

The mentoring relationship does not just provide the mentor with new insight and knowledge about other cultures and ways of life, but it also gives her a unique emotional and sensual experience which she otherwise would be unlikely to experience. A mentor is left with a definite feeling of ‘having made a difference’ to another person’s life and has something to write on her ‘subjective CV’ which, rather than listing career merit, lists identity-moulding elements.

Through KVINFO’s Mentor Network, voluntary social work is redefined combining traditions with post-modern forms of social engagement and community building.

The idea behind matching up two women with completely differing backgrounds meets the participants’ needs for subjective commitment. The sense of having made a difference to a real person’s life is immediate and tangible as compared to, for example, becoming involved in a political party or other organisational work.

Many Danes experience integration as something significantly under-prioritised (or wrongly prioritised) – particularly from a political perspective. Through the Mentor Network, contact is established which otherwise the individual would not likely to be able to instigate herself. The network enables the individual to make a positive contribution resulting in a sense of having made a difference and instilling a feeling of being of value.

The entire success of KVINFO’s Mentor Network can be attributed to the fact that a way has been found to organise voluntary work and establish partnerships which appeal to and satisfy the needs of the post-modern individual.

Read more
Background, case stories and more in KVINFO's
Theme: Mentoring 

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