The importance of providing staff support contacts for volunteer mentors

Keller, T.E., Drew, A.L., Clark-Shim, H., Spencer, R., & Herrera, C. (2020). It’s About Time: Staff Support Contacts and Mentor Volunteer Experiences. Journal of Youth Development, 15(4), 145-161.

Summarized by Ariel Ervin

Notes of Interest: 

  • Although many formal mentoring programs are structured in a way so program staff supervises and provides support to volunteer mentors, who in turn provide guidance to mentees, there’s a lack of research that examines the relationship between program staff and mentors.
    • There is also a lack of studies that specifically examine variables that might affect supervision quality, mentor support, and the overall volunteer mentoring experience.  
  • This study examines the correlation between the time invested in match support contacts and mentors’ perception of the volunteer mentor experience.
  • Findings suggest that volunteer mentors who receive no support from program staff gave the lowest ratings for program organizational culture, volunteer experience, and supervision quality. 
  • Results also indicate that staff support contact length correlates with mentor-reported outcomes, even when support contacts’ helpfulness and prevalence of following support contacts’ advice were controlled.
  • Youth mentoring programs need to encourage their staff to have meaningful and supportive interactions with the volunteers beyond brief check-ins. 

Introduction (Reprinted from the Abstract)

Formal youth mentoring programs typically rely on volunteers to serve as mentors to young people, with training and guidance from agency staff. A fundamental program practice is to provide ongoing support and supervision to volunteer mentors by engaging in regular contact to monitor the progress of the mentoring relationship and offer guidance and encouragement. Using data from mentors (n = 504) in multiple mentoring programs (n = 55), the current study investigated how the amount of time devoted to these match support contacts was associated with mentor perceptions regarding the nature of their volunteer experience, specifically: the quality of supervision received, the mentoring agency’s organizational culture with respect to engaging volunteers, and satisfaction with their volunteer service experience. Mentors who had no staff support contacts gave the lowest ratings for quality of supervision, organizational culture, and service experience. Further, mentors who typically had the shortest support contacts (1 to 5 minutes) reported lower quality supervision, organizational culture, and service experience compared to mentors with longer support contacts. In most cases, the associations between staff support contact length and mentor-reported outcomes remained significant after controlling for the helpfulness of the support contacts and the frequency of using advice suggested during the contacts. These findings provide evidence that match support contacts are an important practice for youth mentoring programs and suggest that programs should encourage staff to spend time engaging in meaningful conversations beyond quick check-ins. Future research should examine how the content of support contacts influences volunteer mentoring experiences.

Implications (Reprinted from the Discussion)

The findings of this study highlight the importance of match support contacts in shaping the volunteer mentor experience (Keller, 2005b). Mentors who do not have support contacts with program staff give the lowest ratings regarding the quality of volunteer supervision, are the least likely to report the agency has a positive organizational culture, and are the least satisfied with their volunteer service experiences. Among mentors who receive staff support contacts, the amount of time devoted to them seems to matter. Mentors who regularly have contacts longer than 6 minutes rate their supervision more positively, report a more positive organizational culture, and are more pleased with their service experiences than mentors who typically have brief support contacts lasting only 1 to 5 minutes. 

During longer support contacts, mentors may be receiving more access to resources to support their mentees, more help addressing challenges in their relationships, and more feedback regarding the impact of their relationships on their mentees (Garringer et al., 2015). These longer contacts may help mentors feel they are being closely monitored and provided with the information and support they need to be successful. In fact, the analysis also revealed that longer support contacts are positively associated with mentor perceptions of the overall helpfulness of support contacts and the frequency with which mentors actually use advice suggested by their staff workers. Prior research suggests that mentors who rate program support positively are more likely to be satisfied with their mentoring relationships and to have longer-lasting mentoring relationships (Marshall et al., 2016; Sass & Karcher, 2013; Weiler et al., 2019). In contrast, very short support contacts may not allow enough time for the program staff person to offer more than surface-level support. While better than no support, short contacts may feel routine or repetitive to mentors, as if the staff person is only making sure the match is still meeting (Spencer et al., 2020). 

Of note, there was a non-linear relationship between length of support contacts and mentor perceptions of their volunteer experiences, with a threshold effect above 5 minutes of contact. Specifically, differences on outcome variables were not apparent between mentors who typically had staff support contacts lasting 6 to 10 minutes, 11 to 20 minutes, or more than 20 minutes. Although this finding may suggest limited return on investment for support contacts over 10 minutes, longer contacts may nevertheless be warranted. For example, it may be that the length of the staff support contact is responsive to circumstances in the match. Mentors who struggle with more challenges in their mentoring relationships may spend more time working with staff to find resolutions. A previous study reported longer support contacts for mentors matched to mentees who contended with more individual risk factors (Herrera et al., 2013). While longer contacts might not lead to increases in perceptions of the quality of supervision, organizational culture or service experience, these longer contacts may help mentors stay committed to their mentoring relationships (see Herrera, et al., 2008). Future research should consider mentoring relationship quality and challenges when investigating the length of mentor staff support contacts. 

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