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As associations continue to look for ways to add value to membership, prioritizing member growth and support should be top of mind. While you can offer professional development and cohort groups, the thing your members often need to hear most is advice from professionals further along in their career path – particularly for those just entering the profession. 

This is precisely the premise behind the founding of the Australian Veterinary Association’s mentorship program. We spoke with Monika Cole, Executive Officer of Wellness at AVA, to get an inside look into the founding and impact of the program. 

1. Understand Industry Challenges

Before launching any program in your association, it’s critical to understand member pain points. While informal interviews and word of mouth can often help gain some insights, more often than not, member data and surveys can point you in the right direction. 

“We conducted research in 2012 which outlined that most new grads, once they had found a job, felt thrown in at the deep end,” says Cole. “Whilst they recognized that support was available, sometimes it came too late for them. It was important to us to implement a program that would help them transition to the workforce from university as smoothly as possible. Mentoring seemed like an effective way to do this.”

2. Build a Program Around Member Needs

Having a general understanding of the problem is only half the equation – planning effective strategies to address these concerns is just as important. While there were the general challenges of any mentorship program, including how to help mentors guide their mentees to self-solutions and how to help mentees feel comfortable asking for help, for Cole and the AVA, there were specific issues they were looking to solve, including: 

  • Career choices – do they go down one veterinary path or focus on a particular specialty, which can be difficult to navigate as a new graduate? 
  • Strategies for achieving personal and professional goals.
  • Practical resources to improve specific skills.
  • Professional challenges in working life; interpersonal relationships, professional ethics and dealing with difficult clients (among others). 
  • Coping strategies around the stress in the first few months of working life.

Outside of the professional component of the program, the AVA also wanted to address another major concern for new veterinarians. “One of the main aims of our program is to provide a safety net for young vets’ mental health risks. Mentors help guide mentees to seek professional help when needed,” Cole says, “Sometimes just knowing you have someone to listen is all that’s needed. AVA also provides a 24hr telephone counseling service to all our members as well as our Mental Health First Aid courses and various resources to support those in need.”

Leveraging Organizational Expertise

Many of the problems they were looking to coach their members through were the types of lessons that came with experience in the profession. However, these experiences often cut that career trajectory short for members fresh out of college. 

“The success of our program is largely due to the volunteers that give of their time, with many of our mentors remaining in the program since our first cohort in 2015,” says Cole. 

Not only have long-time mentors helped sustain the program, but mentees have also transitioned into mentorship roles, helping sustain the program and guiding new professionals through their experience. 

Related: Everything You Need to Know About Mentorship Learn More >

3. Prepare for the Challenges of New Program Launches

Since its launch, AVA’s mentorship program has supported 1,564 graduate veterinarians with over 370 mentors, up from 200 in 2015. Of course, launching a program of this magnitude has its challenges. According to Cole, there are tips to make new program launches a smoother experience. 

For starters, be sure to have staff and resources available. “If possible, have a dedicated staff resource to manage the program, as having a strong connection with mentors and mentees is extremely important.” 

Similarly, looking for ways to facilitate connection should be top of mind, particularly in an increasingly virtual world. “Our program is largely a virtual mentoring program.If you can embed some face-to-face connection within the timeline, it helps to build a sense of community that can be difficult to establish remotely,” she says.

And finally, “having a reliable provider that can automate and support your program with the necessary tools and resources is paramount.”

For AVA, one crucial factor in the success of their program was the right partnership. Together with Art of Mentoring, they developed a mentorship program tailored to their membership, with many of the tools needed to succeed in a virtual environment and video resources featuring veterinary-specific examples to enhance the existing mentoring-specific training.

Related: Making Virtual Mentoring Work Learn More >

The Lasting Impacts of a Mentorship Program

When deciding if launching a new program is in the cards for an association, the focus is often on the logistical work to get it off the ground and the financial implications for the organization. But for the Australian Veterinary Association, the positive impact has easily outweighed the work it took to get the program started. 

“It has had a highly positive impact within our membership base, in particular our mentors who see their involvement in the program as giving back to the profession,” says Cole. “Students also respond well to the association having this as a member benefit available to them free of charge.”

However, for AVA, the scope of these benefits has not been limited to their membership. “Our mentoring program has long-term benefits for participants and the broader profession. If graduates have improved confidence, self-awareness, clearer career direction and a host of other non-clinical skills, this helps build on the sustainability of the veterinary profession.”

Jose Triana
Post by Jose Triana
January 25, 2023
Jose Triana is a writer and creative focused on helping purpose-driven organizations learn and find value online. When he isn't working on content, you can catch him going for a run or resting with a good book.