The traditional mentor-mentee relationship model has a problem: incentives.
Or, more precisely, a lack thereof. People tend to become mentors out of a desire to “give back” — out of the goodness of their hearts, with no expectation of material returns. The benefits are mostly intangible, and if there are any tangible benefits to be had, they center on the mentee.
There’s nothing wrong with giving back — but why not get back, too?
Instead of being a mentor, be a sponsor.
The difference: Where mentor-mentee relationships are driven by sheer generosity, sponsor-sponsee relationships offer concrete upside to both parties. Often, this comes in the form of financial incentives — the sponsor may invest in the sponsee’s side hustle, or donate to their charitable project. But it’s not always money. Sometimes it’s wisdom, training, knowledge — the development of which helps the sponsor in turn.
A mentor is like a coach, but a sponsor is like an angel investor. A monetary exchange doesn’t always take place, but one way or another, the sponsor’s efforts pay personal dividends down the road.
- Fund a project for their sponsee. In college, I was blown away by a political science class, largely because of the professor. After the class, I asked the professor if I could do some work for him. At the time, I thought I was headed into a political career, and I suspected his help could clarify the path. Seeing the potential for mutual benefit, he agreed, and I turned into his research assistant. I’d gather books and summarize articles, helping him grow and refine his store of research material. It was great for me because I had a material reason to gain knowledge in my area; it was great for him because it streamlined his research process. Monetary investments don’t always mean seeding startups or philanthropy. By funding a finite project, sponsors gain precious information, and sponsees gain experience (and get paid).
- Provide niche, in-depth knowledge. I recently met someone at a networking event, a guy working for a direct-to-consumer (D2C) brand that would be perfect for Upscribe. He’s also working on a side hustle in the D2C beverage space. I happen to know a lot about eCommerce D2C. I’m cultivating that relationship partly to help him grow his side hustle, and partly to attract his employer to Upscribe. There’s real upside for both of us, adding meaning to the knowledge exchange.
- Take educated bets on promising talent. In a world of mounting salaries, emerging companies may struggle to compete with the salaries that big companies offer. One of the way these companies can compete is by offering opportunities to promising talent with more responsibility than their career stage might ordinarily warrant. In effect, it’s taking an educated bet on someone you believe will be able to adapt to the role.
- Give growth capital. Sponsors can turn into actual angel investors when the dynamic calls for it.
In a true sponsorship-type relationship, there is clear alignment and fundamental incentives. This means:
- It transcends sheer generosity. Generosity can and should be part of the relationship. But like any endeavor in life, both parties are more likely to be deeply invested with some skin in the game.
- Direct alignment. Because they’re driven by an abstract notion of generosity, the parameters of a mentorship relationship can get a little blurry. When an opportunity for tangible investment arises, is that in-bounds for the mentorship? Or would that be a transgression? Because of their built-in tangible benefits, sponsorships create more total, direct alignment between sponsor and sponsee.
- Complementary benefits. The sponsee receives more knowledge, perspective, and/or capital, the benefits of which are obvious. But unlike mentors, sponsors stand to benefit as well, either by way of monetary ROI, actionable data, valuable connections with the next generation, or potential future collaborators.
As work grows ever more fluid, sponsorship arrangements could and should become much more common. They give industry elders a chance to combine the best of giving back andgetting back, passing on their wisdom in tangible, mutually compensated ways.