Donors bet big on paid mentoring: Does it work?

Written by Michael Fitzgerald, The Chronicle of Social Change

Mentoring saved 41-year-old Gary Clemons’ life.

Separated from his mother at age 5, running with violent gangs at 15, father to a visually disabled child at 19, and homeless at 24 — Clemons couldn’t imagine that the mentors who helped him mount these challenges would guide him on to help lead possibly the most hyped and fastest-growing mentorship program in the nation: Friends of the Children.

Founded in 1993, the Portland, Oregon, nonprofit pairs kids between the ages of 4 and 6 with paid, trained mentors for 12 years. They have received major infusions of cash recently from the federal government and philanthropic heavyweights like the Ballmer Group, while celebrities like Russell Wilson and Ciara are chipping in to see the model replicated nationwide. The PBS show “Visionaries” recently aired a glowing profile of the organization.

As Friends’ chief program officer, the once wayward Clemons is busy helping President Terri Sorensen launch affiliates in Los Angeles, Charlotte, Austin, central Oregon, and Chicago, joining branches in Portland, New York and eight other cities.

Mentoring has become an increasingly popular intervention in the last two decades, with 5,000 programs now supporting nearly 3 million kids, up from around 1,700 in the late 1990s, according to rough estimates. Federal funding amounted to over $90 million this year, mostly coming from the Department of Justice’s Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. In this crowded field, Friends sticks out to supporters because of its rigorous program design and devotion to monitoring outcomes.

There were an estimated 1,700 mentoring programs in the mid-1990s, according to a national database maintained by MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership. Around that time, Congress created the Juvenile Mentoring Program, which is housed at the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention and today spends about $90 million per year on mentoring.

That funding, and growing interest in mentoring as a youth support strategy, helped swell the number of programs on the database to its current total of about 2,300. In this crowded field, Friends sticks out to supporters because of its rigorous program design and devotion to monitoring outcomes.

The organization’s results look eye-popping, maybe justifying the acclaim: One study of the program found that 8 out of 10 of their mentored youth graduate from high school, even though most had a parent who did not. Nine out of 10 avoided the juvenile justice system, even though half had a parent who had been incarcerated. And nearly all of the program’s participating youth avoided teen parenthood, even though most were born to teen parents. Friends seems to help kids from the worst background avoid the worst consequences.

But measuring success in this context is tricky — it’s almost impossible to isolate all the variables that contribute to these life outcomes. As The Atlantic recently reported, scholars and community activists in the mentorship field are struggling to grasp “[how] mentoring succeeds in all sorts of settings and why it often fails.” The results Friends touts doesn’t include kids who dropped out of their program early.

And, unlike Friends’ strategy of using a paid mentor workforce, the life-changing connections that Clemons benefited from were doled out informally, by people like the tutor who stuck by him when he became a gang-involved teenager, or by the high school track coach in Inglewood, California, who saw promise in the star sprinter.

“It was accidental for me — I was blessed to be a good athlete — but with Friends what resonated was how intentional it was,” he says.

As Friends’ stands poised to serve more than 2,000 young people like Clemons once was, this distinction is at the heart of emerging questions in mentoring generally and Friends’ approach in particular.

Are so-called “natural” mentors already in a child’s life more effective than the strangers that Friends deploys across the country? More critically, how strong is the evidence to support the notion that Friends model is superior to that of traditional volunteer mentorship programs like Big Brothers Big Sisters?

‘Mentoring on Steroids’

Clemons says that his informal mentors imparted core skills that he could draw on to turn things around: resilience, self-awareness, purpose-driven decision-making.

That’s why, a few years before he joined Friends of the Children, he sold his PlayStation and bought a dog. He had been homeless for years, crashing with friends in Portland, yet recognized his own unmet potential. He went to the library to study dog training, and soon was working with an organization training dogs for visually impaired people.

By the time he stumbled across Friends of the Children in 2008, as a homeowner with a successful career serving youth and the disabled, he already felt like a made man. But here was a chance to share the social capital he’d accumulated through mentors to thousands more young people across the nation.

During his first few years with the organization, he mentored eight boys, Friends of the Children-style — 16 hours per month, often talking about whatever was on each kid’s mind, but also helping with school work, shooting a basketball or visiting museums, keeping a tight focus on social and emotional skills, and helping youth heal from the traumatic experiences they often carry.

Clemons spent years with each child, and each child would get a total of 12 years of mentoring, usually from two different people. “Mentoring on steroids,” as Friends’ leaders call it. Unlike many mentoring organizations, Friends seeks out the toughest cases — low-income kids who may also be foster youth, and at-risk of a future arrest record. Their trained, full-time mentors serve as something like an on-call life coach, who will not drop kids for anything short of a violent attack on a mentor.

“The fact that Friends has formalized it this way, with mentors that don’t also have separate full-time jobs, the level of consistency for kids there is important,” says Nina Revoyr, who heads the Ballmer Group’s Los Angeles office, which provided a $500,000 matching grant for Friends to set up a chapter locally that will focus on what may be the most vulnerable of populations: children of youth who themselves are or were in foster care.

To that end, the group just picked an executive director for the new Los Angeles branch, which will have a unique focus. Friends will pair the 4- to 6-year-old children of recently aged-out foster youth with mentors who will also have had experience with that system.

It’s well known that this group of kids are more likely than their peers to end up unemployed or incarcerated as adults, making them one of society’s most vulnerable groups. And investments from the philanthropic community suggest that many think Friends has one of the best solutions.

Of Compensation and Outcomes

There’s a subtle, but inescapable contradiction in Clemons’ story. He was mentored by people who either chose to cultivate a relationship with him, or who he sought out for mentoring. Friends of the Children, on the other hand, pays and assigns strangers to kids in the program. It’s a distinction that is the subject of considerable debate in the field.

Jean Rhodes, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, Boston and a leading mentoring researcher, likes the Friends model but says her field might become more effective by pursuing a different tack:

“I think the future will be in finding ways to teach young people to leverage the natural mentors that are already in their lives — teaching them how to recruit teachers, coaches, neighbors and clergy to be their mentors, rather than paying a stranger to do so,” Rhodes says. In other words, mentors like Gary Clemons had.

A review of dozens of studies from the past three decades, co-authored by Rhodes and forthcoming in the American Journal of Community Psychology, suggests that fostering natural mentoring relationships for vulnerable youth might be an equally effective, less resource-intensive alternative to the thousands of formal mentoring programs.

Then there’s the issue of pay. Compensation for mentors can have a chilling effect on the relationship with kids, argue some researchers and child welfare professionals.

Johanna Greeson at the University of Pennsylvania’s School of Social Policy and Practice has developed a program that aims to support natural mentors for youth in foster care, teaching them how the foster care system works coupled with communication strategies for talking to children about their traumatic experiences. When she conducted focus groups with caseworkers and foster youth to develop the program, one case manager early in her time in the field said something that has stayed with her:

“‘If the only adults in your life are paid to be there, it corrodes the soul,’” Greeson remembers the case manager saying. “That spoke volumes. I don’t want to put another person that’s paid to care in these kids’ lives. I’d rather find adults who are there because they want to, with no money attached.”

For its part, Friends has devoted significant resources and time tweaking its paid-mentor model. Clemons points out that they’re incorporating recent findings about the value of natural mentors. “The mentors aren’t just one person — they’re training or teaching that kid how you find or identify those people in your life and leverage those people,” he says.

Clemons also stresses how exceptional his own experience was: “I ran a [very fast] 40-yard-dash. That’s how I met coach. We can talk about my struggles, but my dad was also a homeowner, my grandmother owned 12 acres of land that she won in a card game. Other kids don’t have those breaks, or might be too traumatized to seek mentors. Friends of the Children takes the luck out of it and makes sure those who need a mentor most have one.”

A team led by Mark Eddy, a senior research scientist with the Family Translational Research Group at New York University, is a few years into a multi-decade randomized control trial following 144 kids with mentors through Friends of the Children chapters in four cities. The authors published an initial five-year update last November, and the results of a child’s initial-years involvement with Friends appear modest. The kids told researchers they don’t see any improvement in their own behavior.

The authors also found the typical mentor intervention had only modest effects overall, in line with what a 2011 review of studies found about hundreds of peer-reviewed program evaluations. There were slight improvements in mentored children’s behaviors (according to parent reports) compared to children who didn’t get a mentor — but not much better than what studies of the typical short-term volunteer mentor’s efforts have found. Behavior for children assigned an FOTC mentor improved more quickly than children without, according to caregivers.

Overall, he hasn’t seen signs yet that the program is vastly better than what studies have found about cheaper programs that pair at-risk youth with a traditional, one-year volunteer mentor. But the real test will come in the adolescent years, when the challenges become more significant, and the prospect of gang involvement, teen pregnancy or expulsion loom larger. That’s why Eddy isn’t jumping to conclusions, making a comparison to medicine: “You wouldn’t say anything about the efficacy of an antibiotic until you’ve finished the prescribed dose.”

He speculates that the mentoring alone probably won’t make the difference. He’s more interested in seeing how a community of kids who all have mentors might form a social unit around their mentors.

“Once you reach adolescence and making decisions about who you are hanging out with, how is that going to modify decisions that you make?”

Clemons certainly benefited from that network effect, but saw too many kids from his hometown miss that opportunity. “The kids I grew up with, some of them went to jail. You can talk to them now and see no one showed them how to cultivate their interests so they are in a place where they can’t reach inside for anything.”

Now, helping the organization set up shop in southern California, he gets to watch that change first hand.

Editor’s note: This article was originally posted on The Chronicle of Social Change.