Mentoring by the numbers: Some surprising trends in volunteer efforts

By Jean Rhodes and Elizabeth Raposa

Let’s start with a pop quiz. Here goes: How many American adults, aged 18 and older served as volunteer mentors in 2015? And, #2, how have these numbers changed over the past decade? Take a few minutes to think these questions over? Ok, ready for the answer?

Drawing from the 2016 U.S. Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey (CPS, 2006-2015), we were able to assess, with some precision, the number of adult volunteer mentors.  To our knowledge, this is the first population-wide audit of volunteer mentoring (Raposa, Rhodes, & Dietz, in press, American Journal of Community Psychology). It was conducted at a time when there has been a proliferation of reports, often conflicting, about the prevalence of youth mentoring in the literature. What we found was that rates formal mentoring have remained remarkably stable over the past decade—between 2 and 2.59 million, or around 1% of the adult population.

Surprised by the steady rates of volunteerism? We were too, especially given recent claims that have estimated a 15-fold growth in mentoring over the past two decades. On the other hand, the steady state might be expected, perhaps even appreciated, in light of the dramatic declines in American volunteerism between the years 2006 and 2015 (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2016). And, when we dig deeper into these Census findings, an interesting story emerges—one that is both encouraging and humbling. Encouraging because it suggests that the considerable resources that have been devoted by federal agencies, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, and other organizations to recruit volunteers and expand programs may have helped stem the national tide of diminished volunteerism. But humbling because it raises questions about the capacity of formal mentoring programs to ever staunch the growing gap in social capital.

So, let’s dig. Each month, for over fifty years, the CPS has collected data from about 100,000 adults in about 56,000 households across the United States. The CPS sample of households is scientifically selected on the basis of area of residence to represent the nation as a whole, individual states, and other specified areas. Volunteers were defined as individuals who performed unpaid volunteer activities through or for an organization. Individuals were classified as volunteer mentors in our analyses if 1) their main activity (at their main volunteer organization) was mentoring, and 2) they served 36 hours or more within the past year at this organization. This dosage criteria aligns with the standards of effective practice (Garringer et al., 2015) and represents the minimum time commitment required by most mentoring programs, essentially corresponding to one time per week for at least one academic year (9 months).

Rates of mentoring

We found that, although rates of mentoring have shown modest, statistically significant growth, they are remarkably stable in practical terms—around 1% or 2.5 million adults per year on average. This suggests that recent efforts to increase mentoring rates may have been attenuated by the overall trends away from volunteerism, likely influenced at least in part by the economic recession.

Types of mentors

Analyses of demographic trends in mentors suggest that most mentors are from vastly different backgrounds, both in terms of gender and race, than the youth they are mentoring. The majority of mentors are white (77%) and female (57%), while many of the youth who are referred to formal mentoring organization are male and from non-White backgrounds. Given the ongoing gender and ethnicity mismatches between mentors and youth, it will be crucial for researchers to continue to explore the impact of these differences on mentoring relationships and outcomes. Another concerning demographic trend involves the age of mentors. The most common age range for mentors is 35 to 44 years (25.7% of all mentors in 2015), followed by ages 45-54 (23.1%) and then ages 25-34 (19.6%). However, when analyses examined changes in mentoring rates by age group between 2006 and 2015, there were significant increases in the proportion of adolescents (ages 16 to 19) who mentored over the past decade. Evidence suggests that teenage mentors are associated with less robust outcomes (Herrera et al., 2011), perhaps due to the frequent fluctuations in students’ time and commitment to volunteering (Rhodes & DuBois, 2006).

Geographical trends

Regional data suggest that mentoring rates are fairly well distributed across the United States. There were increases in mentoring in the Southern and Western regions, which had lower proportions of mentors in 2006. Consistent with these regional findings, many of the states with the largest increases in mentoring rates are located in the South and West regions. Given that MENTOR has sought to advance volunteer mentoring through its partnerships in 28 states, we also compared mentoring rates in states with and without these partnerships (the darker the color on the map below, the larger the percentage of mentors). Overall, in 2015, about 70 percent of all mentors were residents of states that have mentoring partnerships; .96 percent of the adult population of those states report serving as mentors. This proportion has increased by a small but significant amount in the last ten years (from .86% in 2006; p < .05), though the proportion of adults who mentor has increased by a slightly larger amount in states that do not have partnerships. In those states, which contain a smaller share of the adult population, 1.26 percent of adults reported serving as mentors in 2015, up from 0.92 percent in 2006 (p < .001).


Unfortunately, mentor retention has been steadily declining over the past decade. The near decade-long drop in mentor retention may stem from the economic recession, and the consequent dip in federal and charitable giving. This, in turn, may have led to reduced capacity of volunteer organizations to effectively engage and manage volunteers. The rise in popularity of school-based mentoring programs might also have played an inadvertent role in the decreases in mentoring retention over the past decade (Rhodes & Dubois, 2006). School-based mentoring programs typically require a nine-month commitment from mentors and youth, with a substantial number of matches ending before or after the summer break from school. Analyses also identified several predictors of poorer mentor retention. Female mentors were less likely to continue mentoring from one year to the next than male mentors. Unemployment also contributed to lower retention rates. It is possible that mentors who have been recently unemployed face fluctuations their availability as they look for and resume work. Mentors who volunteered for larger parts of the year were more likely to return the next year, indicating that a deeper commitment to mentoring is associated with mentor retention.


These trends have interesting implications. First, we should continue to identify training and support practices that could help to build and maintain a committed base of volunteer mentors, well-equipped to handle the needs of youth exposed to high levels of stress and/or poverty. We should also continue to support initiatives like My Brother’s Keeper that seek to expand and diversify the pool of volunteer mentors. In addition, we must continue to explore avenues for supporting youth in building healthy social networks, including supportive non-parental adults. Natural mentoring relationships may help address some of the difficulties encountered by formal mentoring programs. Natural mentoring relationships are more prevalent and reach far more youth than formal mentoring programs, with approximately 75% to 80% of youth endorsing such a relationship (McDonald, Erickson, Johnson, & Elder, 2007). Moreover, because these supportive relationships emerge from youth’s existing social networks, natural mentors are often more similar to youth with respect to ethnicity and socioeconomic background (Hurd et al., 2016), and the relationships may be more enduring than formal mentoring relationships. In addition to continuing to support formal mentoring programs, mentoring initiatives can be broadened by programs like the National Guard’s Youth ChalleNGe Program, other youth-initiated mentoring programs like Connected Scholars (Schwartz, Spencer, & Rhodes, 2015; Kupersmidt, Schwartz, et al., 2016) and Project Dream, which support and encourage the formation of natural mentoring relationships.