Program Corner: Leveraging Mentoring through Innovation

Dave Van Patten - The Chronicles of Evidence-Based MentoringEditors Note: Recently, Dare Mighty Things, Inc. ( assisted Prison Fellowship International ( in developing an international program for children of prisoners. The program model combines two evidence-based best practices: mentoring and international child sponsorship. The program is scalable and financially self sustainable with the potential to impact 500,000 children of prisoners around the world. This post explores the rationale and strategic approach undergirding this innovation. ~ Dave Van Patten

Mentoring Children of Prisoners

If you are visiting this website, you are probably already a believer. You know that evidence-based mentoring works, because you have either studied the effects of mentoring or observed it first hand as a practitioner. Evaluation researchers continue to drive home the point that when mentoring is done right, the impact on children is profound, producing changes in attitudes and behaviors that change the trajectory of a young person’s life.

You are also probably aware of growing efforts to mentor the children of incarcerated parents. Criminal justice experts realize that if we are going to break the lock hold of crime, we need to address the needs of 2.7 million children who have a parent behind bars in this country. That means that 1 in 28 children in the US have one or both parents in lockup. These children are the unseen victims of their parent’s incarceration; often stigmatized, stressed, and growing up alienated from those around them. Relative to their peers, they are seven times more likely to become involved in the criminal justice system and six times more likely to be incarcerated (Johnston, 1995; Travis).

In response, leaders within the mentoring movement have mobilized to address this need. Amachi ( is a leading example. Begun in 2000 by Rev. Dr. Wilson Goode (with the support of Public Private Ventures and Big Brothers Big Sisters), Amachi has become the informal brand name for programs that mentor children of prisoners, serving over 300,000 children in 250 US cities. And it works. An 18-month randomized-control study of Amachi conducted by ICF International showed statistically significant improvements in participants’ attitudes toward their family and their future. Other studies corroborate these findings, showing that children of incarcerated parents who participate in mentoring programs have better attitudes toward their family and school, and perform better in school and within the community. (Bruster, 2012)

International Child Sponsorship

International child sponsorship is one of the leading forms of direct aid from households in wealthy countries to needy children in developing countries. Over 9 million children are supported currently through formal international sponsorship organizations. Experts estimate that over $3.2 billion is given by child sponsors to international child sponsorship programs each year.

Child sponsorship programs involve a set of monthly contributions to a needy child in a developing country. Monthly contributions from sponsors typically range from $25 – $40 annually and are typically applied directly toward the child’s education, food, health or in meeting other needs. In many programs an important focus is child mentoring and the emotional, social and spiritual development of the sponsored child. Sponsors are often encouraged to exchange letters and photos with their sponsored children and even visit them in the home country. Many sponsor-child relationships develop into mentoring-type relationships, continuing until the child attains a certain level of self sufficiency and lasting an average of 9.25 years!

Do these programs work? According to Dr. Bruce Wydick, Professor of Economics at University of San Francisco, they do. He and his colleagues (Glewwe, Rutledge) recently completed a six-country impact study of Compassion International, a leading child sponsorship organization, in which they surveyed over 10,000 individuals in six countries over eight years. They found that sponsorship results in 2.28 additional years of formal education, and large and statistically significant impacts on the probability of employment, occupational choice, age of marriage, community leadership, and dwelling quality. They also found evidence of positive spillover effects on many of these variables to siblings and other village residents of the same age. In Uganda, for example, sponsored children were 42% more likely to finish secondary school and 83% more likely to complete university.

But what drives these outcomes? A key finding of Wydick and his colleagues was that sponsored children who develop a close relationship with the sponsor tend to stay in the program and in school longer than those children who have less frequent contact with their sponsor. In fact, Wydick and his colleagues attribute the impact of child sponsorship programs to a joint focus on individual mentoring and the provision of educational inputs. These two types of interventions complement each other, producing a much stronger combined impact than either would on its own.

Reaching 10 million children of prisoners

What if we could apply what we know about mentoring children of prisoners and international child sponsorship to address the needs of 10 million children of prisoners worldwide?

That’s the question that Prison Fellowship International ( set out to answer this year. This fall, PFI launched an international program that blends international child sponsorship and mentoring best practices with an intensive focus on the specific needs of children of prisoners. The program is currently being piloted in Costa Rica, Cambodia and Nepal with 500 children of prisoners. Within 3 years, PFI intends to expand the program to 10,000 children.

The PFI program model is designed to achieve three key goals:

1. The program must be scalable throughout its network of 120 affiliate national ministries,
2. The program must be effective at improving educational, health, resiliency, and safety outcomes in the lives of children participating in the program, and
3. The program must be financially self sustainable, generating sufficient donor support to fuel its growth and full scale implementation

Key program elements were adapted from mentoring children of prisoner programs and child sponsorship best practices. These elements include:

1. Organizational readiness. PFI developed an incremental approach to assessing the overall readiness of an affiliate national ministry to implement the program. Key criteria include leadership, organizational capacity, existing program focus, needs assessment, market potential, etc. Once a national affiliate is evaluated to be a candidate for the program, a Memorandum of Understanding is negotiated to outline the goals, roles and responsibilities of each party.

2. Program planning. PFI determined that each national affiliate selected to participate in the program needed to develop a three year plan and budget that would guide the development and expansion of the program. Each participating national affiliate works hand-in-hand with PFI to devise a local program model that will achieve outcomes in each of the four program goals (education, health, resiliency, and safety). This plan leverages local assets and drives the development of a budget. Both PFI and the National Ministry sign off on the plan and budget.

3. Capacity building. Prior to starting the program, the National Ministry is provided seed funding to hire staff that will be critical to the program’s operation. These people may include program and sponsorship coordinators, psychologists, case managers or other staff who need to be in place prior to the start of the program. Once on board, these staff are invited to participate in PFI sponsored training and provided with operational materials prior to program launch.

4. Recruitment and Screening. Similar to most effective mentoring programs, both children and sponsors are carefully recruited and screened prior to matching. Children are generally recruited through prison visits where incarcerated parents ask PFI staff and volunteers for help. Specific child eligibility criteria are used to screen children prior to enrollment in the program. Guardian permissions are secured. Similarly, sponsors are recruited and screened through TV documentaries, social media, concerts and word of mouth. These sponsors are screened to ensure that they are suitable for matching with a child in a developing country.

5. Training and Matching strategy. Training for both children and sponsors takes place prior to matching. For children and their guardian, training takes place in small groups or one on one and usually provided by their assigned case manager or sponsorship coordinator. Key responsibilities and expectations are discussed. Child confidentiality requirements are reviewed. A Child Sponsorship Packet is developed and readied for prospective sponsors. Sponsors view child profiles online and select one with whom they would like to be matched. Introductions are made via mail and are monitored by sponsorship coordinators and/or social workers.

6. Program Activities. While each National Ministry has a unique program design, they all share a commitment to providing critical services in support of four outcome areas including: (1) children are safe and sheltered, (2) basic nutritional and medical needs are met, (3) children have access to and participation in school and (4) children have loving relationships with self, peers, family, community and God. Each National Ministry may achieve these goals differently, ranging from residential programs to community-based day programs. Enrolled children must participate in their local program on a regular basis.

7. Monitoring and reporting. Once the match is made, individual case files are established and maintained monthly by case managers, serving as the basis for completing annual score cards on each child’s improvement. Sponsorship relationships are continuously monitored both in the field and at the international office. Both the sponsor and child are encouraged to correspond with each other, though all communication is closely monitored. Often the sponsor will send gifts at various times throughout the year; some will even visit the child. Quarterly and annual reports are required from the National Ministry to ensure that all the direct services paid for by sponsors are actually provided to the child. Onsite audits confirm these reports.


The potential for evidence-based mentoring is much more significant when we consider it as a best practice that can be leveraged by embedding it within much larger programs serving children and youth. International child sponsorship programs are one example, impacting 9 million children while generating $3.2 billion annually. Prison Fellowship International figured that out when designing a program to help 10 million children of prisoners. Where else can mentoring be embedded?