How Formal Mentoring Programs Can Facilitate Natural Mentoring Relationships

Screen Shot 2014-05-13 at 8.11.58 PMby Sarah Schwartz

 I recently had the privilege of being part of a conversation organized by the Mentoring Partnership of Southwestern Pennsylvania on what mentoring programs can do to facilitate natural mentoring relationships. The conversation was prompted in part by  findings that emerged from  the new Mentoring Effect report, stating that youth are more likely to describe natural mentoring relationships as very helpful, compared to formal mentoring relationships. It also arose from concerns about formal mentoring programs’ capacity to provide sufficient numbers of mentors to address the “mentoring gap.”

For mentoring programs, however, it can be unclear how to go about supporting natural mentoring relationships, since they are, by definition, not the product of a program’s intervention. Nevertheless, researchers and practitioners are increasingly exploring how the infrastructure and services provided by formal mentoring programs may also be used to support natural mentoring relationships. In fact, in a recent poll in Michael Garringer’s Chronicle Forum asking whether more time and resources should be devoted to natural mentoring, 42% responded: “Yes! Natural mentoring needs more support because that is the most effective way to get youth the mentoring they need” and another 42% responded: “Maybe…the formal mentoring field needs to find ways to nurture natural mentoring in our communities, while also supporting program mentors.”

My impression from the conversation was that, while there is increasing interest in finding ways to support the development of natural mentoring relationships, only a minority of programs are currently implementing strategies or services to promote natural mentoring relationships. Introducing natural mentoring can raise complex practical and even legal issues, that have yet to be resolved in many programs. Nonetheless, in light of the growing interest, I thought it might be helpful to summarize some possible strategies that formal mentoring programs can use to facilitate natural mentoring relationships.

Strategies to support natural mentoring relationships among youth participating in formal mentoring programs:

  • Mentor Recruitment: Employ a Youth Initiated Mentoring approach in which youth are trained to select a mentor from their existing social network to become their formal mentor (with the program then providing screening, training, monitoring and support)
  • Screening/Assessment: Include a short screening/assessment tool (e.g., “eco-mapping”) to assess youth’s existing social networks prior to matching; this could be used both in screening to help prioritize those with more limited networks and to highlight potential natural mentoring relationships that the program and/or formal mentor could help support and develop
  • Matching: Provide greater opportunities for mentees to play a role in selecting their mentor (e.g., “mixers,” based on Dr. Michael Karcher’s research)
  • Program Structure:  Create mentor “families” in which groups of mentor/mentee pairs engage in activities together, promoting connections beyond the mentor-mentee dyad (based on Dr. Lindsey Weiler and colleagues’ research)
  • Training/Support: Include as an explicit goal for mentors to engage with other caring adults in their mentee’s network and to develop their mentee’s capacity to identify, reach out to, and maintain relationships with supportive adults
  • Termination: As part of the termination ritual, provide training and support for mentees to help them identify and reach out to natural mentors in their lives

To reach youth and adults beyond the scope of a formal mentoring program:

  • Natural Mentor Training: Provide training for community adults who are not formal mentors (e.g., school and afterschool staff, community members, business leaders etc.) to build their capacity as natural mentors
  • Youth Training: Provide training for youth to develop their capacity to identify, reach out to, and maintain natural mentoring relationships with the adults within their existing social networks
  • Youth and Adult Training: Provide workshops in which youth identify a nonparental adult to participate in the training with them; the training can facilitate the development of the relationship between the youth and adult, as well as developing the youth’s capacity to identify and develop relationships with supportive adults (based on Dr. Noelle Hurd’s research)

We would love to hear if you are using any of these strategies as well as any additional ideas you have about how programs can help facilitate natural mentoring relationships. Please share experiences, ideas, comments etc. in the comment section below.