What keeps a mentor engaged? New research sheds some light.

Larsson, M., Pettersson, C., Eriksson, C., & Skoog, T. (2016). Initial motives and organizational context enabling female mentors’ engagement in formal mentoring–A qualitative study from the mentors’ perspective. Children and Youth Services Review71, 17-26.

Summarized by Kirsten Christensen



Youth have a strong need to develop close relationships with those around them to succeed developmentally. Mentoring programs are effective contexts for meeting adolescents’ social needs during development. However, mentoring organizations often have a shortage of available mentors due to difficulties in recruitment and retention, leading to long wait lists. It is evident that there is a need to close this mentoring availability gap, and identify strategies to better initiate and maintain adults’ involvement in the lives of young people.

Despite this need, little research to date has collected information from mentors’ perspectives about how best to facilitate mentor recruitment, and encourage mentor satisfaction and long-term commitment. Through qualitative inquiry based on a self-determination framework (i.e., the theory that humans have three basic psychological needs – autonomy, competence, and relatedness – that motivate them), the authors aimed to explore and understand female mentors’ motivation for engaging in formal voluntary mentoring of young women in the Girls Zone program.

Specifically, the study had two research questions: 1) What are the female volunteers’ motives to become engaged as mentors 2) What makes the female volunteers stay in the organization and continue their engagement?



Girls Zone is a Swedish, non-governmental community based mentoring program that serves young women ages 12-25. Through building self-esteem, confidence, and trust, the program aims to prevent mental health problems, promote equality, and prevent drug use. Female mentors ages 24-40 work one on one with program participants voluntarily for about 1.5 hours every two weeks for one year.

The participants in the final sample consisted of 12 female mentors from the program. Forty to 90 minute qualitative interviews were conducted with each participant, assessing information on the mentors, their motives for volunteering as a mentor, and the kind of support they receive as mentors.



The researchers coded the interviews using the principles of inductive qualitative content analysis, though without the creation of themes in the analysis. The categories that emerged from the data all related to the three domains of autonomy, competence, and relatedness, as outlined by self-determination theory.

Regarding the research question, “What are female volunteers’ motives for becoming engaged as mentors?”, the researchers found six themes that emerged from the data:

  1. Self-interested reasons
    1. Being a mentor benefited the mentors themselves because it provided an experience that could improve their opportunities to pursue careers in certain areas, such as psychology. In addition, the mentors cited that such a position allowed them to fulfill their aspirations of working with social issues.
  2. Empowering women
    1. Mentors felt a strong sense of solidarity with their protégées, understanding the vulnerability that young girls face in terms of societal pressures and ideals. The mentors also cited an interest in gender issues, hoping that their involvement would lead to increased equality between women and men.
  3. Being a responsible citizen
    1. The mentors felt a responsibility as to influence and improve society, specifically by helping to increase the amount of non-judgmental relationships in society
  4. A sense of compassion
    1. Some of the mentors endorsed having experienced problems during their teenage ears, and had a desire to use their experiences to understand and help young girls through their tough situations.
  5. Self-awareness
    1. The mentors, now self-confident women, wanted to share the knowledge with young girls that many of the problems that exist during the adolescent years are impermanent. They wanted to play an important role in their mentees’ lives by giving them someone to talk to.
  6. Longing for meaningfulness
    1. Prior to joining the organization, the mentors felt dissatisfied with their unused free time. Despite their successes with money, their profession, and material things, they felt a lack of emotional relationships in their lives and felt out of touch with reality.

Regarding the second research question, “What makes the female volunteers stay in the organization and continue their engagement?”, the researchers found five themes that emerged from the data.

  1. A win-win relationship
    1. The mentors and protégées were able to develop and form their relationships on the basis of mutual desires and needs. This led to the mentors having an opportunity to reflect on their own lives and develop personally. They also gained perspective on their situations, learned things about themselves and experienced an increase in self-confidence.
  2. A feeling of ambivalence despite clear responsibilities and contributions
    1. Despite the mentoring program outlining and clarifying the extent of responsibilities that the mentors had, they still found it difficult to disregard their personal feelings of responsibility for their mentees. They had formed strong emotional connections with their mentees, and often questioned if they were doing enough as mentors. As a result, mentors were ambivalent about ending their relationship with their mentee when the program year was complete.
  3. A caring organizational identity
    1. The mentors liked the organization’s care for the women, and felt that they were appreciated by the organization and seen as an asset.
  4. Customized support and guidance
    1. The mentors felt supported by the organizations such that the program manager was always available and present emotionally and physically. The program managers helped guide the mentors through their relationships.
  5. A commitment to pursue with feelings of duty and emotional connection
    1. The mentors felt a duty to not only fulfill the engagement requirements set forth by the organizations, but also felt a responsibility for their protégées.


Discussion and Conclusion

The findings of the study add to the limited literature on the content and processes associated with mentor engagement. Qualitative results demonstrated that mentors stayed engaged in the program because they understood the importance of the intervention for the young girls involved, and they could identify with and cared for their mentees.

To have the most effective recruitment and engagement of mentors, organizations should work toward facilitating the mentors’ experience of autonomy, competence and relatedness – the three psychological needs outline by self-determination theory. In doing so, mentors may be more likely to stay engaged. Future research is needed to investigate how voluntary engagement develops over time.

Additionally, studies examining the quality of the mentoring relationship should be conducted in order to understand the relational factors (i.e., between a mentor and mentee) that produce a successful relationship. Finally, further research is necessary to determine how the aim, focus, and type of organization influence mentor recruitment and retention.