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Help Sheet

Networking and Mentoring: How it can help?

"Networking" is dismissed by some as a rather sinister, modern concept that involves mercilessly exploiting your personal contacts to push yourself forward. The reality is that networking is neither new, nor sinister.

For many people, networking is a way of being. These are often the 'people people' who join the dots quickly between what knowledge their group needs and who they know that either has this knowledge or knows how to find it. For other people, it is a skill that needs to be learnt. Others, knowing networking is 'not their thing', can get on with other important tasks and leave the networking to those who find it easy.

At its best, networking is a mutual process involving an exchange of ideas, information, experience, support and help. It is about meeting and interacting with people who can be of help to you and who you can help in return.

You already have a vast number of people, or "contacts", in your network - your spouse or partner, parents, children and other relatives, employers, employees or fellow travelers in the mental health consumer movement, friends and people you have met socially, and people who know you through your activities with the local kindergarten, school, book club, tree planting group, service club and so on.

You already use your networks - when you ask a former helpful worker to provide a reference for a job, for example, or when you ask a friend the best way to approach their boss for a donation for your group, or when you ask a colleague to offer their advice on a project in which they have particular expertise.

Your networks include anyone you know, or have met, and even your contacts' contacts. More formal networks also exist in the form of professional bodies, women's groups, support groups, special purpose clubs, and so on.

A range of networks have also begun to emerge on the internet in the form of chat rooms or more formalised groupings. These networks can give you access to useful contacts in other states or even other countries, contacts that can be of use to people joining Committees of Management in rural areas (where networks may be limited) or for those whose committee's brief is in a field with limited local scope.

You can use your networks for a range of purposes in relation to your consumer advocacy, for example:

It is important for a community group or small not-for-profit organisation to develop an understanding of the sorts of areas where different staff members, volunteers and Committee of Management members have networking contacts.

The very nature of networking means that people's networks are often personal and not organisational and the contact needs to be based on the personal history of the two individuals involved.

Notwithstanding this, your group could benefit from creating a grid similar to the one below.

Networking Map


Area of Interest

Jill C
  • International law and consumer organisations

  • International consumer politics

  • Consumers involved with UN

  • Psychiatric disability politics

Mohamed N
  • Cultural issues in mental health consumer politics

  • Committee of management of the local public health centre

  • Good contacts in the local Islamic community

Tony S
  • Public housing

  • Self-advocacy

  • Internet consumer sites

  • Legal contacts

Robyn K
  • Teachers at the Neighbourhood House

  • People with mental illness in prison

  • Personality disorders

  • Issues for women with mental health problems

Susan F
  • Consumer representative for mental health on local council working group

  • Representation of mental illness in the media

  • Union politics - Australian Services Union rep.

  • TAFE teacher

Jenny P
  • Mothers with a mental illness group

  • Walking and exercise group

  • The 2nd National Mental Health Strategy

By referring to this grid, staff, Committee of Management members and volunteers know in an instant who to approach to see if they have networks in an area of importance to the inquirer.

It is also a good exercise because the broad scope helps people realise that they do have networks even if they have not utilised them in the past.

Some people will share interests and have totally different contacts. This is great. However, it is important to see a broad picture and not to create a situation where people feel inadequate because they are not as networked into the sector as others.

What is mentoring?

Mentoring is the process whereby a more knowledgeable or experienced person acts as a role model, guide or helper to a less experienced person to help them carry out their role more effectively.

Mentoring relationship can occur naturally or informally - between parents and children, for example, or teachers and students, or senior and junior colleagues, or even between friends.

The benefits of such arrangements have become so well recognised that many organisations have set up formal or structured mentoring programs. Such programs often involve "matching" participants for a relationship that is defined by formal expectations, such as regularly scheduled meetings.

There may be a formal mentoring system in place on your Committee of Management or Board. If not, you should be on the look-out for a person or people who can serve in this capacity.

Mentoring has a long history in the professional bodies in mental health. In the discipline of psychology it is compulsory and it is called supervision and in psychiatry it describes the relationship the consultant psychiatrist has with her or his registrar. We can all learn from more experienced people.

How can I benefit from mentoring?

A good mentoring relationship will bring about a range of positive results for you, your group, organisation, Committee of Management, and even your mentor.

For new Committee of Management members, for instance, or those requiring a bit of a boost, a mentor can:

What should I look for in a mentor?

Not just anyone can act as a mentor. The defining feature of a mentoring relationship is the existence of a more experienced and knowledgeable party.

Some people fulfill this role instinctively and they can be a boon to those taking up a new or different role within your consumer group. If such a person does not emerge immediately, it is a good idea to start making some inquiries about people who might serve this purpose.

You can look for mentors within the group you are considering joining - but be aware that you can look beyond that particular group as well. People who have been involved in the consumer movement over many years, people who have sat on Committees of Management in areas other than mental health, and people who have retired from most of their political and advocacy activity but still have something they would like to give back to the consumer sector also make good mentors as they will have a good idea of some of the general challenges you may face.

If a suitable person cannot easily be identified in the local area, you could consider a telephone or electronic mentoring relationship.

There are some essential traits a mentor should possess:

It is important for not-for-profit organisations to provide mentoring opportunities for staff and consumer volunteers as well as their Committee of Management members.

These same qualities are needed when paid employees and volunteers enter into a mentoring relationship.

It is most likely that senior staff within a not-for-profit organisation will be the most likely to take on the mentoring roles and there can be some issues in relation to this:

Mentoring opportunities are extremely important and should be taken seriously by not-for-profit organisations, particularly in the psychiatric disability sector. The organisation has an obligation to look after the mental health of those who help the organisation to function successfully.

Here are some suggestions to help your group to fulfil that obligation:

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