Mentoring: lend a guiding hand

Danny Scott / 12 July 2017

More and more older people are becoming mentors, helping younger people to make the best of their lives and finding a new sense of purpose in return.



Many of us know someone who seems to ‘have it all’, but occasionally complains that something’s missing. Perhaps you feel the same yourself. You’ve had a successful career or are enjoying a comfortable retirement, the children have long moved away, the mortgage is paid off and there’s a trip to New Zealand planned for next spring. But, somehow, the good life doesn’t feel quite as good as it should.

You don’t feel challenged, and maybe even miss the constant banter with pesky teenagers. ‘What am I actually doing?’ you ask yourself. ‘What am I contributing?’

For an increasing number, the answer to this dilemma lies in mentoring – sharing skills, common sense and life experience with younger people.

Major international companies, such as HSBC and Ford, have already placed mentoring at the heart of their business, with older, more experienced members of staff teaming-up with younger employees. But there are also many independent mentoring organisations outside the workplace, offering help and advice for everyone from disadvantaged school leavers to budding entrepreneurs, young offenders, people who’ve been in care to junior lawyers.

'Imagine having to find your way through life when you’re desperately isolated with no family network to support you'. Lord Freud

Grandmentors was set up in 2009 by Lord [David] Freud, former banker, government adviser and Conservative minister of state for welfare reform. It has projects in Islington, Hounslow, Ipswich and Folkestone with volunteers aged 50-plus mentoring 16 to 25-year-old care leavers, helping them with anything from opening a bank account to applying for a job.

‘Through my work, I had become very aware of how difficult it is for youngsters today,’ explains Lord Freud. ‘Imagine having to find your way through life when you’re desperately isolated with no family network to support you. It’s a sobering thought!

‘I was thinking about the wonderful relationship I had with my grandparents. A grandparent’s role is very specific because, unlike parents, they’re non-judgmental. Even if you’re being an idiot, they offer a sympathetic ear. I mentioned the idea of setting up a “grandparent” network to community groups I was working with in London. They said, “Put your money where your mouth is”. So I did!’

Lord Freud thought he might struggle to get volunteers, but has been overwhelmed by people from all walks of life, including retirees, bus drivers, dentists, boardroom executives and mechanics, all willing to take on the responsibility.

‘If you look back to the post-war generation, they threw themselves into social clubs, community projects, volunteering; the Big Society before it was called the Big Society,’ he says. ‘Somewhere and somehow, that got lost. But the interesting thing is that we’ve now got a new generation of people – aged around 50 to 70 – who want to pick up where they left off.’

Lord Freud’s experience is backed up by The Prince’s Trust, which provides mentoring and advice for 18 to 30-year-olds interested in starting businesses through its Enterprise programme.

What type of person becomes a mentor?

‘We’re lucky to have mentors with a huge range of skills, knowledge and backgrounds,’ says Joe Martin, national volunteering and secondments manager. ‘But, over the past few years, we’ve noticed most of our mentors – and volunteers in general – tend to be slightly older, semi-retired and have had accomplished, satisfying careers.’

Tom Pauk, a retired 54-year-old former international banking lawyer based in London, fits this model. He recently joined Trailblazers, a national mentoring organisation that aims to reduce reoffending among young people, by supporting and counselling them. ‘I’m lucky enough to have money in the bank and both kids are about to leave university,’ he explains. ‘Life has been very good to me and it feels like the right time to give something back.’

Would-be mentors can take their pick from hundreds of different local and nationwide schemes. Chance UK, for instance, provides mentoring for 5 to 11-year-olds with emotional and behavioural problems. Welsh charity CAIS helps those who face complex life challenges, such as substance misuse, mental health problems and homelessness. Its Change Step service, meanwhile, sees former forces personnel provide support and guidance to leavers who have struggled with the transition into civilian life. More than 1,200 veterans and their families have been supported so far.

Scottish Mentoring Network supports organisations throughout the entire country, providing training, advice and evaluation – there’s even an annual awards ceremony. Recent figures suggest that there are almost 7,000 volunteer mentors involved in 180 projects, aiming to improve youngsters' educational attainment, stop risky behaviour and build confidence.

So does mentoring actually work? 

In Glasgow, MCR Pathways supports more than 600 youngsters who’ve been in care or had some other disadvantaged background. According to official figures, 82% of those from care who’ve taken part in the scheme have gone on to the likes of further education or a job, compared with just 48.8% in the city before MCR was set up.

‘We’ve shown that mentoring is key to unlocking the immense potential in these young people,’ says founder Iain MacRitchie.

Meanwhile, businesses set up with the support of The Prince’s Trust’s Enterprise programme have a 72.5% three-year survival rate, compared with the national average of 60.5%. One former mentee is Rob Law, who created the children’s luggage brand, Trunki. Told on BBC Two’s Dragon’s Den that his product wouldn’t sell, he’s shifted almost three million suitcases and employs 80 people.

Mentoring is not just a one-way street

But mentoring isn’t just a one-way street. There are huge benefits for those providing the help and advice, too. According to Matt Hill, senior research officer at the Institute for Volunteering Research, studies have shown that volunteering and mentoring reduce depression symptoms and brain shrinkage, increase life-satisfaction, self-esteem and even life expectancy.

‘…suddenly I realised what a difference I had made to the man and his family. For the first time in a long time… I felt alive.’ Tom Pauk

‘The mentoring takes place in prison and, yes, it’s intimidating,’ says Tom Pauk of his work with Trailblazers. ‘But I wanted to push myself, and the feelings of accomplishment I get seem a million miles away from banking.

‘When a prison chaplain told me that a prolific self-harmer I’d been visiting had stopped self-harming, suddenly I realised what a difference I had made to the man and his family. For the first time in a long time… I felt alive.’

How to become a grandmentor

Grandmentors For more on joining the scheme, go to volunteeringmatters.org.uk/project/grandmentors or call 020 3780 5870

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations is the umbrella organisation for more than 12,500 projects around the country. For its mentoring and befriending section, go to mandbf.org and click on Member network, then on Find a project for opportunities in your area

A way with words: helping a young author 

When Gracie Wright needed advice to turn her ideas for children’s books into a viable business, mentor Eleanor Bannister stepped in to help

Anyone who’s done well in business knows that no project or career can really get going without some serious outside support. That’s something that inspired Eleanor Bannister, an international development manager with Adnams Brewery in Suffolk, to become a mentor for The Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme.

‘So many people had helped me in the past and I now had the opportunity to help someone else and give a young person a bit of confidence,’ says Eleanor, 53.

Two years ago, she was paired with budding Suffolk-based publisher 32-year-old Gracie Wright. Gracie had suffered a serious brain injury in a road crash when she was 11 that left her withdrawn, struggling at school and a victim of bullying.

‘After I left home, my depression got worse and eventually I took an overdose,’ she says. ‘I felt so helpless.’

But while unemployed, Gracie eventually started working on some children’s picture books based on a character she’d created called Silly Eric. ‘I had no idea how to take my ideas forward, but my mum said, “Why not try The Prince’s Trust?”’

From the moment they met, Gracie knew she’d found the right mentor in Eleanor. ‘She was so enthusiastic about my books. She believed in them more than I did! Knowing she was going on this journey with me really helped.’

With Eleanor’s support and encouragement, as well as self-publishing the Silly Eric books, Gracie now runs creative writing workshops and holiday camps for children (graciewright.com).

‘As a mentor, you try not to get too emotionally involved,’ says Eleanor, ‘but I’ve worked with Gracie for a while and I’m thrilled at how much she’s achieved. Isn’t that what life’s about? Helping people? Whether it’s a friend, a colleague, a stranger or a mentee. What a sad world it would be if all we did was take, take, take.’

There for her: helping a young mother

Pat Grant became a steadying influence in a young woman’s life and is amazed and delighted at her progress

Alesha’s* adopted mother died when she was 13 and she spent her teenage years running away from foster homes and getting into trouble. If anyone needed a calming older presence in their life, it was this 22-year-old from north London.

‘My social worker suggested a mentor, but I honestly didn’t think I needed help,’ she says, smiling sadly. ‘I didn’t want to sort out my life because I didn’t care.’

Nonetheless, three years ago she was referred to the Grandmentors scheme and paired up with mentor Pat Grant, a former academic and midwife.

‘Usually, the goal with mentoring is to get the youngster into a job or education,’ explains Pat, ‘but, with Alesha, I just wanted to help her sort her life out. Being a mentor can be frustrating at times, but there’s also a real sense of achievement. After I retired I wanted to feel I was still putting my experience and skills to good use.’

‘Pat was cool!’ remembers Alesha, now 25. ‘If I told her about getting into trouble, she didn’t write it down and make it all official. She didn’t judge me.’

Alesha eventually became pregnant and, with the father ‘out of the picture’, she realised the baby’s future was in her hands. ‘Luckily, Pat was always there for me. She came with me when I went for a scan and answered any questions. It brought us a lot closer together.’

Baby Daisy* is less than a year old, but Pat is amazed at the changes Alesha has made. ‘She’s stopped smoking, she’s calmer and she’s beginning to take responsibility for her life.

‘I’m so pleased and excited to be part of Alesha’s story. Recently, she came to me and said, “Pat, I’ve opened a savings account for the baby”. She did that all on her own. Wow, girl, you know how to put a smile on my face!’

*Names have been changed.

Do you have what it takes to be a mentor?

Our five-point checklist to help you decide.

Do you think like a grandparent? You’re not there to rant when your mentee makes a mistake; rather your role is to listen and digest. You need to be a facilitator, assisting the mentee to make their own choices.

Patience is essential. ‘Some of the young men we meet don’t trust anyone,’ says John Shepherd, CEO of Trailblazers. ‘Building up that all-important bond of trust can take a long time.’

You need to be committed. In many cases, you could be meeting your mentee once a week (sessions usually last an hour) for a year – or perhaps longer. And, before that, there’s training. At Grandmentors, for instance, potential mentors are put through a two-day course – other schemes’ training may last one to three days.

For most schemes you don’t need to worry too much about your academic qualifications. What’s more important is life experience: a solid understanding of how the world works, and how people work. For the likes of The Prince’s Trust Enterprise programme a background in business and/or enterprise is a must.

A decent level of computer literacy, however, is useful. Many job and college applications are now done online and may even involve a webcam interview. And if you’re interested in business mentoring, you’ll need to be social media-savvy; a great deal of modern commerce is conducted via Instagram, Facebook and the like.

This article was first published in the July 2017 issue of Saga Magazine.

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