Top 10 features of healthy mentoring organizations

Screen Shot 2013-08-30 at 3.34.48 PMEditor’s Note: We are thrilled to provide you with this report, written by mentoring expert Dr. Carla Herrera, aimed at providing funders with guidance in determining which mentoring programs to support.   Through a series of posts, we present, “Making the Most of Youth Mentoring: A Guide for Funders”

(Original Publisher(s): Public/Private Ventures. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported License, with permissinon from the Foundation Center).

by Carla Herrera, Ph.D.

The mentoring field has grown tremendously over the last two decades. There are now thousands of mentoring programs around the country, and many initiatives that incorporate elements of mentoring into larger sets of services. Funders and policymakers who want to improve youth outcomes are faced with tough decisions about how to allocate their scarce resources in a crowded and complex field.

Mentoring has a rich research base, and a large variety of program models, including community-based, school-based, group, email, peer and paid mentoring approaches. Research across these programs is uneven: Some approaches have been studied rigorously at scale, while others have very limited evidence of effectiveness. The research that does exist suggests that these programs are not always effective with the same groups of youth, nor can they be expected to achieve the same goals. Each approach may require its own set of resources and capacities, with different “best practices” needed to yield benefits.

Funders and program leaders are left with a dizzying array of mentoring approaches to choose from and very little guidance about which one may be the best fit for the youth they hope to reach. To address this need, the Pinkerton Foundation asked Public/Private Ventures (P/PV) to develop a brief guide outlining which types of mentoring programs work, for whom, and under what circumstances. To achieve this, we mined our own 25-plus years of work in mentoring, reviewed key literature, and gathered input from leading experts in the field: Michael Garringer (National Mentoring Center, Education Northwest), Michael Karcher (University of Texas at San Antonio), and Jean Rhodes (University of Massachusetts, Boston). Our goal was to help funders invest their limited resources where they can have the most impact by: (1) determining which organizations have the capacity to implement strong mentoring programs; (2) identifying the features that undergird high-quality mentoring programs; and (3) understanding how to make the most of distinct mentoring approaches (including best practices, and red flags to avoid, for each type of mentoring reviewed).

This guide is by no means conclusive, but it should help funders navigate the existing research on mentoring and provide a starting framework for deciding which programs to support.

Tips for recognizing organizations with the capacity to implement strong mentoring programs. 

As with all social programs, the stability and strength of a mentoring program is determined at least in part by the character of the organization implementing it. There are a number of core organizational features that are crucial to ensure that a program is well managed and financially stable. These broad organizational features are examined in more detail in other work, and we include them here essentially as a reminder. When considering funding for an organization that provides mentoring services, grantmakers should start by asking 10 basic sets of questions:

  1. Does the organization have an institutional history or connection to mentoring (i.e., expertise in mentoring or connection to  an established mentoring program)? How central is mentoring to the organization’s mission and core capacities?
  2. Does the organization have a governing body (i.e., a board)? Is the board invested in the mentoring program? Does the board offer significant help with fundraising for the program?
  3. Does the organization have partnerships (or plans for partnerships) that will help it recruit youth and volunteers for the mentoring program?
  4. Is the staffing of the program adequate, with appropriate qualifications, roles, clinical expertise, etc.? Do staff have access to technical assistance, training and staff development opportunities that are applicable to the specific groups of youth with whom they are working?
  5. Has the organization/program had significant issues with staff turnover, particularly recent turnover in key management positions? Does it have a clear plan for how to retain its staff and deal with turnover?
  6. If you are funding growth or expansion in the program/organization, does the organization have the experience and capacity to manage this growth?
  7. Does the organization have the experience, capacity and resources to manage finances effectively?
  8. Does the organization have a diverse enough funding base that it could survive without your funding if needed?
  9. Does the organization have appropriate physical space to house its operations and, if applicable, activities for youth participants? Does it have computers, software, and other technology resources needed to manage the program and fundraise effectively?
  10. What is the relationship of the organization to the community? How is it viewed by the community? Are there “competing” organizations offering similar services?

If an organization doesn’t meet all of these criteria, that doesn’t necessarily make it a bad investment. But the answers to these questions do present a clearer picture of an organization’s strengths and weaknesses. Funders may need to decide if they are willing to make a larger investment in the organization’s infrastructure (versus just funding the program under consideration) to lay a solid foundation for success.

(Next week’s post: Recognizing High-Quality Mentoring Programs)