By Chris Hultquist, National Mentoring Resource Center
Five years ago, I quickly became the ringleader of the controlled chaos at The Mentor Connector. At first, the small staff were overworked and struggling to keep up with the demand. Our mentor match to staff ratio was well over 65:1 and funding for mentoring services had been waning for the past four years. There was no way we could continue to provide high-quality mentoring to all our matches, much less think about growth.
I’m sure you would agree that the Mentor Coordinator position is basically a catch-all for every aspect of a mentoring program. The coordinator is the recruiter, trainer, supporter, evaluator, and many times the fundraiser of the organization. It is the coordinator who could find themselves recruiting at a community event in the morning, to cleaning the office after an afternoon activity, to providing evening support to a mentor when her youth discloses suicidal thoughts. With the current structure, burnout was inevitable.
At the time, our coordinators were providing all of the mentor support. When mentors or families had questions, needed resources, or wanted ideas for activities they called the coordinator. We also realized that over 50% of our coordinator’s time was spent helping 20% of our mentors problem solve solutions to routine obstacles. Although the personal connection was invaluable, we recognized a shift to more of a community-match mentality would utilize the skill of our 200 volunteers, which would reduce costs without sacrificing a high-level of support.
Throughout the past four years, we have worked to intentionally connect our mentor matches together and use easily accessible tools to create tiered levels of support. This deliberate shift expanded the circle of support beyond the Mentor Coordinator and essentially encouraged mentor matches to mentor each other. Currently, each new match is provided the following four tiers of support that work in tandem to sustain the match:
Since we were overwhelmed, we began with the easiest thing to implement, online support. In under 15 minutes, we created a closed Facebook group for mentor matches to communicate with each other and invited our network of mentors to the group. At first nothing happened. When connecting with mentors, we would refer their questions to the online forum, but others were hesitant to comment. We live in rural Vermont, after all. Then we started posting pictures of activities to the forum, and traction grew. Over the first six months, it became a place for matches to connect, ask quick questions regarding boundaries, or invite other matches to an activity. Although it took over a year to truly gain momentum, it has become a great support technique for new and current matches.
With the success of our online support, we knew that certain topics and scenarios weren’t suitable for a Facebook forum. For example, the topic of boundaries around gifts/presents routinely came up, so we began a quarterly peer support group to provide additional training and facilitate peer discussion around pressing topics. While the support group was easy to implement, consistency was key. The support group was designed as a space for mentor matches to help one another problem solve. We originally hand selected mentors to the table, some with expertise and some with questions, so they could support one another. The group quickly grew into a monthly forum where a variety of matches connect to discuss identified topics and learn from each other. To keep costs low and best utilize our volunteers, we invited a mentor to lead the group each month.
Lead Mentor Support
By the time we implemented our Lead Mentor model, we were convinced that peer support was a model for success. Our Lead Mentor program identified mentors around the County who had mentored for over a year and displayed the skills to lead a small cohort of peer mentors. With local grant support through the AD Henderson Foundation, the program was designed to partner existing and new matches together in a small group format with a Lead Mentor facilitator who would provide routine check-in, support, and small group activities. This provided mentors a small community feel within the larger mentor community and reallocated a significant portion of time for our Mentor Coordinators to expand the program. Working 8-10 hours per month, all Lead Mentors are paid an annual stipend and supervised by the Program Director.
This tiered level of support freed up our Coordinators’ time allowing them to focus their efforts on high need matches and enhance our program. Our coordinators still provide an additional layer of monitoring to all mentor matches but also are intentional to connect matches together who share common interests. In addition to the reduced caseload for each coordinator, we implemented bi-annual Staff Fun Days, routine staff development, and wellness practices in the office that have decreased the feeling of burn-out coordinators experienced. They happily say that their job is much more manageable these days! To further support our coordinators, we are currently in the process of implementing regional coordinator meetings to provide peer support to all Mentor Coordinators across the region.
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