Profiles in Mentoring: Carla Herrera on improving mentoring programs

Interviewed by Cyanea Poon

Dr. Carla Herrera is an independent consultant who was most recently a senior research fellow at Public/Private Ventures. Dr. Herrera has published numerous reports and articles on school-based, community-based and group mentoring over the past 20 years. We are honored to speak with her about her journey, and hear from her on next steps in mentoring programs and mentoring research.


Chronicle: Can you tell our readers a bit more about your background and research interests? Having done this work for so many years, what keeps you going? 

Carla Herrera (CH): My first job out of graduate school back in 1998 was as a researcher with Public/Private Ventures—a truly stellar, trailblazing organization and probably the first to really dive into mentoring as a key part of its research agenda.  My background was in child development, focusing on children from infancy to middle childhood, and I had almost no experience in mentoring. But when I started at P/PV, the 1995 study assessing the impacts of BBBS community-based mentoring had just come out a few years earlier, and the excitement around mentoring was palpable!  As my first independent project, I was asked to visit two fairly small BBBS school-based mentoring programs (an approach that was relatively new at the time and was just beginning to expand), to learn more about it and write up what I learned.  This experience was the basis for my first P/PV report—School-based mentoring: A first look into its potential.  I remember talking with Gary Walker—our president—to get his thoughts on the report.  He said that after reading it, he felt like he had just opened a window and sunlight poured in on him.  I was happy that I had been able to convey that feeling, as that was a perfect description of how I felt visiting those two programs.  I was totally hooked!

I was involved in several other mentoring studies over the next few years, but didn’t lead a major mentoring evaluation until the BBBS school-based mentoring (SBM) impact study—which started in 2003 and involved 10 BBBS programs across the country.  The main goal of the study was to examine impacts, but it was definitely characterized by one of P/PV’s “unspoken” stances—which very much guided my work at P/PV and has continued to guide it ever since.  Namely, our work was not simply meant to say whether a program worked; it was, much more importantly, designed to help programs run better—and be better equipped to benefit the lives of youth.

The findings from the SBM impact study were positive, but our impacts were small and didn’t carry over into a second school year—suggesting several areas for improvement.  Once the findings were out, I worked with Keoki Hansen at BBBSA, several BBBS agencies, Tom Keller and Michael Karcher to help the organization understand how it could improve SBM at a national level.  Our task was to use the findings from the study to determine how to change BBBSA SBM practices in ways that would lead to stronger, more beneficial matches.  That project and a similar project with Karen Shaver at BBBS of Canada and a team of mentoring researchers, were two of the most exciting projects I’ve been involved in over the course my career.  It’s the reason I started my career at P/PV—I wanted to conduct research that would be “actionable”—and could contribute to youth’s lives in very real ways.

When P/PV closed, I knew I wouldn’t be able to find another organization that was doing work that would excite me as much as the work at P/PV, and that would allow me to continue to focus on mentoring.  So, I continued work as a consultant—working with truly talented mentoring researchers and exemplary programs to help move the field forward. I have been honored to work with organizations, like BBBS, that want to learn and improve to ensure they are serving youth in the most effective way possible—and with stellar mentoring researchers that really care about the field. That’s what keeps me going and devoted to this field!


Chronicle: Having worked extensively with evaluations on mentoring programs, what do you think are the key pathways to success in mentoring? 

CH: I would offer programs the following advice:

(1) Don’t be afraid to ask more of your volunteers.  I believe mentors want to feel prepared and are willing to invest the time to do so.  It they aren’t, they are likely not the best choice for working with a young person in a relationship-based intervention.  A perfect example is Great Life Mentoring, an exemplary mentoring program that pairs youth receiving mental health care with community-based mentors.  Elizabeth Higley, the program’s founder, requires 20 hours of training from volunteers.  Not only do they attend the training, but their relationships last an average of 4 years and, importantly, they have relatively large effects on youth well-being.

(2) Don’t sugar coat the challenges of mentoring to your volunteers!  I remember being inspired by a talk by Renee Spencer several years ago.  She was presenting findings from It’s not what I expected, noting how mentors often walked into situations they simply didn’t feel prepared for.  We found a similar pattern in the challenges reported by mentors in the Role of Risk study.  Making sure mentors know as much as possible about the youth and the families they’ll be serving, before starting their match, is really important!

(3) Help your mentors understand that they matter!  David DuBois and I have been surveying P/PV’s 1995 study participants over 20 years after their involvement in the program, and are hearing how very important mentors can be in youth’s lives, even if they weren’t “lifelong” mentors and even if it took youth years to understand the lessons they taught them. These lessons are not always measurable, but they are invaluable.  One respondent, for example, told us that being a part of the program made him realize that there are people out there who care about others and will do things for other people even when there’s no gain for themselves.  At the same time, even 20 years later, some respondents remember mentors leaving without a trace and never understanding why.  The biggest gift mentors can give their mentees is to be a dependable presence in their life.  And if they can’t, to help youth understand why…this isn’t a “nicety”—it’s a must.  Renee Spencer’s qualitative work and her work with Tom Keller on the STAR project give us excellent examples of why this is critical.

(4) Don’t be afraid to say “no” to volunteers who aren’t up for the commitment that good mentoring requires; they may do more harm than good.

(5) Less is often more.  Taking time to create powerful matches may mean serving fewer youth better.  Use the research out there pointing to the importance of strong (sometimes costly) supports to make your case to funders!


Chronicle: Where do you think mentoring programs should improve on given the large body of evidence? 

(1) Janis Kupersmidt’s recent work linking training to match length supports its importance as a key practice.  Findings from the Role of Risk similarly support the importance of training.  But we’ve just begun to scratch the surface of how to structure training in a way that best prepares mentors for their work with youth.  Sam McQuillin has done some really neat work exploring how to provide training in school-based mentoring in a way that is most effective.  It’s not just content, but also how and when you provide that training that matters.  Programs need to think outside of the box in this way to understand how to prepare our mentors—our volunteers and the youth they serve deserve it!

(2) We also know very little about what good support consists of—how, when, and in what context it is most effective.  Yet, we know from practitioner wisdom that good case managers make all the difference—and work I’m doing with Tom Keller and Renee Spencer studying MENTOR’s Quality Mentoring System Intervention suggests that the effects of program practices on mentor efficacy and relationship quality, in part, flow through the relationship between case managers and volunteers, highlighting that this staff person is one of the most important links between the program and its matches. So, supporting these staff, training them, retaining them, and providing them with tools to do their job well are critical.

(2) Mentoring is not a one-size-fits-all intervention.  Thinking more about how to create solid relationships using both mentor and youth voice is important.  But we also need to think about how we may need to tailor mentoring itself—as an intervention—to youth’s needs.  Programs should think more about how they could tailor their services around different goals for different youth and what kind of training and supports mentors might need to make this happen.


Chronicle: Where do we go from here with mentoring research?

CH: Because the impacts of mentoring are so broad (e.g., one youth may benefit in academics, another in conflict management, and yet another in sparks development), our “standard” evaluation tools and methods are weak, at best, at fairly assessing these benefits. If 10 youth receive 10 very powerful, but unique, impacts, our tools will miss them, because 9 of 10 will not benefit in each area we test. In our Role of Risk study, David DuBois developed a measure to assess for how many of our outcomes each youth made measurable improvement, and then compared our treatment and comparison groups on that measure.  Researchers should continue to explore how to measure outcomes in a way that reflects mentoring’s broad potential.  Otherwise, I believe we will continue to underestimate its effects.

We need to learn more about specific mentor behaviors that make a difference.  What should mentors DO on the ground that can teach, or support, or encourage, or spark an interest?  Findings from AIR’s evaluation of the Mentoring Enhancement Demonstration Program suggest that specific mentor actions and behaviors matter in shaping youth outcomes.  Julia Pryce also has been doing some fabulous work in this area looking more closely at exactly how match relationships unfold.  Kelsey Deane’s observational work on what relationship participants are doing and saying is also cutting edge. We need to remember that mentoring relationships are just like any other human relationship. They are complex and not so easy to describe or compartmentalize (e.g., to understand their strength or whether they will have a lasting positive (or negative) effect).  As much as I’ve tried to measure these relationships over the years, I feel like I’ve been using blunt tools to measure something that deserves much more precise, careful, developmental work.  These researchers are doing amazing jobs digging into this really important topic.

We also need to learn more about what mentor characteristics matter in shaping impacts.  We’ve started learning about what youth characteristics may shape their ultimate benefits, but not so much about the mentors or the combination of mentor and youth characteristics that matter.  Other key questions about mentors include: How do mentors’ own past experiences shape their approach to working with youth and their ability to develop strong relationships with them?  How do their expectations shape their approach?  How does their relationship with youth’s parents and other important people in youth’s lives affect relationship development?

We also know very little about how mentors, themselves, change and grow through their work with youth.  How do youth teach, inspire and foster the growth and understanding of their mentors?  Do mentor experiences and learnings spread to other adults in the community?  Conducting an impact study of the benefits of mentoring for the mentor would be hugely important for the field!

Finally, our estimates of what good mentoring costs are very outdated.  Until we update what it actually costs to serve youth, funders will turn to outdated, “rough” estimates that programs can’t possibly adhere to.  So, they will be forced to stretch funding dollars in ways that aren’t best serving our youth. Understanding more about staffing in general—not only its costs but also ideal caseloads, the effects of turnover, the kinds of training and support needed to foster strong case management—are all topics of importance for our growth as a field.