Improving the Quality of Mentoring Programmes & Recommendations for the European Mentoring Field – Interview with Thomas E. Keller

By Erika Irabor, Mentoring Europe

Our European mentoring community is constantly seeking innovation – improvement, and interaction. Therefore, QUALITY in mentoring is like water for flowers – without it, nothing can grow. One way to accomplish that mission is to learn from other mentoring experts.

And this also represents the key purpose of this blog post. The Student Lab at Mentoring Europe has interviewed our American partner Thomas E. Keller, who over 20 years ago decided to focus on mentoring research after working in a mentoring programme for several years. He holds a Ph.D. in social work. He is a Professor in the school of social work at Portland State University, founder of the Summer Institute on Youth Mentoring and the Centre for Interdisciplinary Mentoring Research with a focus on mentoring in youth programmes, colleges, and workplaces. Examples of the core topics at the hearth of his research are:

  • Mentoring relationship development
  • Approaches to enhance mentoring programmes for better effect
  • Roles of parents and caregivers in mentoring
  • Focus on the importance of staff in mentoring relationships

With his profound knowledge and expertise in mentoring research, he shared a couple of insights with us that we shall bring to you in this blog post. Core topic of the discussion and interview was indeed one of the striking concept within the European mentoring field discussion. Namely,

QUALITY in mentoring programmes.

How do you define quality in Mentoring?

Before talking about HOW mentoring programmes can improve their quality, it is important to understand WHAT quality actually means.

Thomas Keller believes quality in mentoring is given by:

  • the actual experiences of the mentor and the mentee:  Quality is when a mentoring relationship benefits the mentee – meaning that they feel understood and supported.
  • helping the mentee in pursuing what they want to achieve: It is key that mentors truly understand what the mentee needs and then find strategies to respond and help them achieve those very specific goals.
  • achieving results that are reasonable for mentoring to accomplish. For example,  helping the mentee to successfully become socio-economically and culturally integrated represents a valuable outcome for which mentoring has been proven highly effective!

Mentoring goes beyond social and civic goals like the reduction of school dropouts.

If an outcome like that is influenced by many factors, it is more difficult to make a difference with mentoring. Every established mentoring relationship comes down to the connection between the mentor and the mentee.

But here is a problem:

Before quality in mentoring can be reached, certain factors have to be in place.

Thomas Keller noted research findings generally reveal that “half of the people who become mentors are naturally good at it”. While this fact may sound good to half of the mentors community, it also implies that the other 50% struggles with things such as:

  • interaction skills
  • helping others
  • supporting others.

And what is the solution or solutions? These are the recommendations our interviewee has given us:

  1. To ensure better quality in mentoring, the struggles of the mentors who are not naturally good at their role can be addressed through proper programme support.
  2. Mentoring programmes should provide quality training for upcoming mentors when the expectations are clearly communicated to the mentor.
  3. The programme staff plays an crucial role. Not only, this should not be hired just to train & match mentors. Program staff members should closely work together with mentors, implying regular contact throughout the mentoring relationship and providing support net to mentors themselves.

Thus, in short visualisation:

Mentor + Programme staff = valuable and more likely quality mentoring relationship

What else can mentoring programmes do to ensure better quality?

To answer this question let us maintain for a moment the focus on programme staff and mentors.

The first step in ensuring a better quality in mentoring programmes is to hire qualified staff and always deploy evidence-informed practices. Thomas Keller gave us examples from his research:

  • One study showed that when matches were supported by staff who were highly motivated and engaged in their work and emphasized following program guidelines, mentees later reported having more positive mentoring relationships.
  • A second study found that the amount of time staff spent providing support to mentors during regular check-in phone calls was important. Mentors who had no contact with staff were the least satisfied with their volunteer experience. As the length of conversations with staff increased, mentors had higher levels of volunteer satisfaction.
  • In a currently ongoing study that is not yet published, when mentors said that their programme used a range of recommended practices, the mentors had better working relationships with staff, and better support from the staff contributed to more positive mentoring relationships.

Moreover, both the mentor and programme staff should be able to be long-term. So instead of focusing on short-term goals, it is better to keep the bigger picture in mind and think about a strategy on how these people can stay for longer periods. However, to achieve this, our interviewee emphasised, the programme staff should be supported with good working conditions and indeed rely on best practices.

Lastly, yet probably most importantly, when talking about quality in the context of mentoring, it is key that both parties deeply care about what they do. As a saying goes:

Only what comes from the heart can touch other hearts.

This is what mentoring programmes would significantly benefit from knowing

Often, mentoring programmes are aiming at reaching a certain amount of people.

But how can this numerical target be smoothly reached?

Thomas Keller has the answer:

“Quantity can be achieved through quality.” (Keller,2022)

If your goal is to reach a certain amount of people, the best way to do this is through quality connected to the long-term objectives. When programmes provide good support, mentoring relationships are more successful, and participants stay in the programme longer. That way numbers build up because programmes are not constantly replacing lost matches.

He also pointed out that ‘Programs that want to improve their quality should start with their staff’. Staff should be well-qualified and well-supported so that practitioners enjoy their work because participants notice whether the staff are enthusiastic and really care.

Advice for the European mentoring field

The interview with Thomas Keller ended with a set of final advices for the European Mentoring Scene:

First, if a mentoring programme strives for improved quality there has to be clarity in the programme model.

What does that mean?

It is simple.

The basis of any mentoring program has to be established on the following factors:

  • Understand WHO you serve
  • WHAT’s the purpose
  • and HOW do you want to accomplish it

Example: One mentoring programme featured in this study was set up to help people with disabilities.

The goal of the programme was to help disabled people to be more involved in the community through mentoring. This aim was accomplished through social activities between the mentor and the mentee such as going to a museum together.

What can we learn from that?

The very focused goal resulted in a high effect because the people knew exactly what to do.

Keller added, ‘It’s all a matter of strategic thinking’.

If you want to address social issues with your mentoring initiative think about who you serve and how you want to accomplish it. A mentoring programme that aims at helping students to go to college should be designed with activities to do exactly that: Helping students to go to college. The programme model and mentoring activities should focus on that target audience and that purpose to enhance the outcome.

In summary, the mentoring community in Europe would highly benefit from focusing on

How better structuring mentoring. This includes aspects such as:

  • What mentors have the right skills?
  • How often do the mentor and mentee meet?
  • Where do they meet?
  • What activities do they do? And are these strictly aimed at achieving both the overall purpose of the programme with a mentee-centred customisation?
  • How often do the mentor and programme staff members meet?

‘Think carefully about different options in mentoring and have good reasons behind your mentoring program model’. Keller, 2022

As a final note, Keller recommended that practitioners should involve targeted mentees in designing and developing the programme to meet more concretely their needs from the very designing phase.

Read more about Thomas E. Kellers’ work here, and here

To access the resource, please click here.