In addition to the “parent” organization’s core features, strong mentoring programs also have specific characteristics that help them create high-quality, effective mentoring relationships. Fundamentally, these characteristics fall into two categories:
- the idea behind the program, and
- how that idea is implemented.
Regardless of the particular mentoring model, the following questions can go a long way toward helping funders determine if the program is a good investment. Lacking one or two of these features shouldn’t be viewed as a “deal breaker”; however lacking several, within each of these two key areas, may be cause for concern.
1. Is the idea behind the program well articulated and integrated with other program elements? (i.e., “Is it really mentoring?”)
Many mentoring programs have a broad theory of change, but fewer have a theory of change that truly guides their work with youth—determining program goals, activities and components in a clear and logical way that reflects current research. See Figure 1, for a sample theory of change depicting one route through which a school-based mentoring program might promote changes in youth’s academic behavior and performance. The following checklist will help ensure that a program’s theory of change is appropriate for mentoring and that it is reflected in how the program serves youth on the ground.
- Does the program have a stated goal to create relationships between mentors and youth (the program may be strong, but not necessarily a mentoring program, in which adult-youth relationships are central)?
- Can program staff clearly articulate how participants’ lives will be different while they are in the program and after their involvement (i.e., in addition to a long-term vision for improving youth’s lives, does the program have short- and medium-term goals for individual youth that are realistic and logically connected to the experiences and services provided by the program)?
- Does the expected length of the mentoring “match” (i.e., the mentor’s time commitment) align with the program’s theory of change (e.g., in programs where the relationship itself is the only mechanism of change, does the program ask volunteers to commit enough time for a strong mentoring relationship to develop)?
- Does the program have some way of assessing whether its goals are achieved?
- When mentoring is a component of larger systems or sets of services, is it logically and sensibly integrated into the overall service offerings, to support the short- and medium-term outcomes that are desired?
2. Is the program designed around solid, research-based practices, and are these practices well implemented? (i.e., “Is it good mentoring?”)
Mentoring has a strong research base that links particular program features and practices with the creation of effective mentoring relationships and with a variety of specific outcomes. Of course, programs can easily point to “best practices” that they loosely follow (e.g., “required training” can range from a pamphlet offered at intake to a much more in-depth and productive hands-on experience for mentors). Thus, in addition to assessing whether a given practice is implemented, it is also important to assess how well that practice is implemented, and the extent to which program practices are actually experienced by mentors and families as helpful. Funders can ask a handful of more in-depth questions of program staff, examine a random sample of case notes or contact a small group of mentors or participating families to hear more about their experiences. The following questions should serve as a starting point for this kind of more in-depth exploration.
- Does the program implement the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring (which reflect research about what works in mentoring programs), with clear benchmarks and guidelines for:
✏ Recruiting youth and mentors; ✏ Screening youth and mentors; ✏ Procedures for matching youth with mentors; ✏ Targeted length of match and frequency of contact between mentors and youth; ✏ Frequency and content of supervision; ✏ Length, content and timing of mentor training; and ✏ Structured processes to end the match (e.g., a closure ritual for the match; an exit interview for the mentor and mentee separately; support for parents in how to manage match endings)?
- Does the program offer tailored mentor support and training in response to specific circumstances and crises that may arise during the match and are relevant to the special needs of the youth being served (e.g., mentors of youth in foster care may need training on such topics as: working with changing guardianship, navigating the foster care system, and managing challenging behavior)
- Does the program have evidence that mentor and youth participants find the supports provided by the program helpful? For instance, can the agency provide evidence that mentors take advantage of trainings and/or that they find them useful? Can the agency provide evidence that mentors speak with case managers regularly and that these conversations are sufficient to meet their needs?
- Does the program have a youth-/match-tracking database that allows staff to examine basic information about the youth and mentors and the length of their matches?
- Does the program regularly review data about its matches, youth and/or mentors? How does the program use that information to improve?
- Does the agency collect information about matches that close and why they close (i.e., does the agency actively try to understand what it could be doing to create stronger matches)?
- What is the program’s rate of early (i.e., prior to established program guidelines) match closures? Do most relationships (i.e., more than 50 percent) remain intact for the expected length of time?
Different mentoring models often serve distinct groups of youth, involve different types of volunteers, and typically aim to achieve different goals. These models thus carry with them different indicators of strength and distinct “red flags” (i.e., practices whose presence or absence may indicate a weaker program). In the next installment, Carla outlines six of the most common types of mentoring programs. Stay tuned!