Should mentors be compensated? Two experts weigh in

Professor Timothy Cavell is the Director of Clinical Training at the University of Arkansas. He is also the Director of the Center for Research on Aggression and Victimization (CRAV). Primarily, CRAV’s researchers are interested in the development of effective interventions for school age children that may be on their way to having problems as they grow.

Sometimes it makes sense to compensate mentors

Do you think that mentors should be compensated for the time they put into working with youth?  Although more intensive programs are associated with better youth outcomes, programs must balance the potential benefits of more intensive relationships with potentially greater difficulty recruiting and retaining volunteer mentors. Some programs have addressed this tension by offering incentives to mentors, often through academic credit for college students  or a paid para-professional position involving a caseload of several youth  Although compensation may increase the extent to which mentors fulfill their obligations it also may reduce intrinsic, internal motivation–or send the wrong message to youth. Do you see this trend of compensating mentors is a good idea?

There is little evidence that compensating mentors is always needed. Mentoring has been operating for a long time and with great success through the “kindness of strangers” who volunteer their time. I’ve been a Big Brother for nearly a year, I have no plans to stop, and I’m not looking for compensation. But there are circumstances when it makes good sense to compensate mentors. One is when programs need to ensure consistent visits in short-term school-based mentoring (SBM). We use college students as Lunch Buddy mentors for children who are bullied or are highly aggressive. Given SBM can be harmful when mentors are inconsistent (Karcher, 2009), Lunch Buddy mentors enroll in a 3-credit college course. This helps ensure consistency with minimal match support and on-site monitoring.

Compensating mentors also makes sense when promoting multi-year matches with challenging youth. For example, Friends of the Children (FotC) has the ambitious goal of mentoring high-risk children over a 12-year span. Mentors have a caseload of several children, they meet for a few hours each week, matches can last 5-6 years, and mentors are paid.  Why? First, parents of FotC children often struggle to maintain their relationships: Nearly 50% of FotC children are later placed into foster care. Secondly, Grossman and Rhodes (2002) found that 55% of BBBSA matches didn’t reach the 1-year mark and youth with greater psychosocial risks were likely to have matches end early. Thus, maintaining a multi-year FotC match is no easy task! As a Big, I regularly face obstacles (e.g., travel, scheduling, feelings of discouragement) just to visit my Little each week. When obstacles mount (and benefits recede), many Bigs give up. Compensating FotC mentors is one way to keep mentors invested in the life of a child.

But are paid mentors less intrinsically motivated to serve youth, and is that harmful? Research has yet to address this question but I offer two points. First, compensation will broaden your pool of potential mentors. A steady salary will entice some ill-fitted folks to do long-term CBM, so selection and training must be thorough. FotC staff are highly selective in who they hire, so they combine compensation, intrinsic motivation, and required skills. Course credit will entice some ill-equipped folks to do short-term SBM, but if consistent visits are combined with a clear, workable structure, there will be less variability from one mentor to the next.

Secondly, don’t assume that compensating mentors eliminates intrinsic motivation or leads to poor performance and poor relationships. As a clinical psychologist, I’m paid for therapy I provide. This work can be fairly intense and the therapeutic relationship is often quite intimate. I know that my performance, especially in more difficult cases, is aided by the fact that I’m compensated for my time and expertise.

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A risky strategy!

Art Stukas, Ph.D. is Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia. He and his colleagues (Gil Clary and Mark Snyder) have been studying volunteer motivations and have conducted a series of studies testing their “Functional Approach to Volunteerism” and have made significant contributions to our understanding of volunteer practice.

Although it may seem tempting to offer rewards and incentives to encourage volunteers to take up mentoring or to persist with it through difficult times — after all, everybody seems to benefit — this is a risky strategy for a mentoring program to choose. A basic psychological principle, with more than forty years of research support, suggests that external pressures, be they rewards, requirements, or other social influences, can reduce intrinsic interest and motivation for activities. Providing expected and tangible rewards (like money) for engaging in or completing a task that was initially interesting can reduce willingness to engage freely in the task subsequently as well as later intrinsic interest.  Mentors may come to ask “why would I do this if I don’t get paid?” So, programs that offer compensation may decrease the pool of potential mentors who would volunteer freely — leading to the necessity of every program having to pay its mentors (if you take this argument to its logical conclusion). Worse yet, if mentors begin to perceive that this is an activity that requires compensation in order to entice people to get involved, then youth too may begin to think that their mentors are only there for the money and not for more altruistic reasons, which could have damaging effects on the relationship and its outcomes.

Involving university students in mentoring through their academic studies also seems like a good idea, because the benefits available to participants in community service are well documented. However, universities that make service a requirement may find that their programs backfire if students feel coerced into participating. Gil Clary, Mark Snyder, and I examined the effects of required service-learning programs, finding that students who perceived the requirements to be more controlling were less likely to intend to volunteer in the future. The undermining of self-perceptions of autonomy, an important human need according to psychological theory, can result from both requirements and the presence of tangible rewards and this may help to explain future failures to act. As such, we recommended that programs that required students to volunteer should also give them the flexibility to choose their own ways of meeting the requirement, such as a choice of organizations or activities. Recent research has confirmed that autonomously chosen prosocial behaviors, as opposed to those performed for more extrinsic reasons, are associated with both greater well-being for volunteers and better outcomes for recipients of their help. Mentoring programs that add compensation may end up undermining the motivation and performance of their mentors, as well as the outcomes that their programs can deliver. Focusing on the less tangible benefits that mentoring can provide (such as opportunities to act on important values, feel good about oneself, or gain a greater understanding of the world or social issues), may prove a wiser way to recruit mentors and to maintain their commitment.