What do Americans think (and do) about mentoring?: Important new report sheds light

by Jean Rhodes and Matthew Hagler

With the release of a comprehensive new report on the scope of both structured and informal mentoring, MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership has provided the field with important new data about the scope of mentoring in the United States. This report advances our understanding in several important ways. First, it moves beyond a simple headcount to explore Americans’ motivations for, obstacles to, and beliefs about mentoring. Second, unlike the many surveys that focus on youth’s perspectives, this study explores the perspectives of adult mentors (as well as adults who do not mentor). In doing so, it provides a depth of new understanding and a clear path toward fuller, more satisfactory engagement with caring adults. Of particular importance, this report contains the most comprehensive survey of informal or natural mentors to date. Given that far more adults serve as natural mentors, and efforts by both MENTOR and the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring to support, enlist, and train natural mentors are underway, this information is sorely needed.

The sheer volume of data presented in the report may feel a bit overwhelming, so we highlight what we consider to be some of the most interesting trends.  First, as Garringer and Benning point out, MENTOR’s survey results suggest that previous studies have vastly underestimated the scope of structured mentoring in the U.S. Most notably, a recent analysis of Census data (Raposa, Dietz, & Rhodes, 2017), suggested that only about 1% (roughly 2.5 million) adults serve as ongoing structured mentors, far fewer than the (10%) or roughly 25 million adults found in this survey. Garringer and Benning explain that the discrepancy is the result of their “bigger tent” definition of structured mentoring, and to a certain extent variations in how major constructs are defined always account for differences across studies. In particular, the Census report focused specifically on volunteers (not paid staff) whose main volunteer activity was mentoring and who served 36 hours or more within the past year (i.e., at least one hour per week for one academic year). Although this dosage aligns with the Elements of Effective Practice, it skewed the findings toward more traditional mentoring approaches. In contrast, the MENTOR survey did not stipulate a minimum dosage, capturing a wider variety of structured mentors in a range of settings. The MENTOR survey findings are closer to, but still more than double, Census rates of any volunteer structured mentoring, irrespective of time commitment (4.5% of Americans).

Consistent with most previous observations of both volunteering in general, and formal mentoring in particular, a larger fraction of volunteer mentors in the Census report were women (57%). In contrast, MENTOR’s survey found that more than 60% of structured mentors were male, which may come as a surprise to anyone who has served or worked with a mentoring program. Other interesting differences emerged, most notably that structured mentors tended to be younger, more affluent, and more politically conservative than previously believed, suggesting that the MENTOR report may be tapping into a different sector of structured mentors. Indeed, only 4% of structured mentors reported that they were actually engaged in a formal mentoring program. Rather, many more reported mentoring through other youth development programs, such as afterschool and tutoring programs (37%), faith-based organizations (21%), or work-force development (21%). When 96% of formal mentoring is occurring outside of structured mentoring programs, it raises important definitional questions. It is likely that most structured youth mentoring captured in this survey occurs in group contexts, and that staff in youth development, tutoring, the workforce, and even religious institutions are  defining their roles, at least in part, in terms of structured mentoring. Taken together these findings highlight the need to conduct additional research on adult-youth relationships in non-mentoring program contexts, and to provide evidence-based training on effective mentoring approaches to the adults across a wide array of settings.

In addition to providing new insights on structured mentoring, this report contains an extensive audit of informal or natural mentors, whose perspective has rarely been included in existing studies but who make up the majority of mentoring activities. Cumulatively, respondents spent 655 million hours engaging in informal mentoring, compared to about 486 million hours of structured mentoring. Compared to structured mentors, informal mentors, as a whole, are older, less ethnically diverse, more politically balanced, and more likely to live in a suburban area. While formal mentors tended to cite general motives about helping their communities and the next generation, informal mentors often said they saw a particular need in a certain youth or were directly asked by someone (possibly the youth or their parents) to mentor. Finally, it is notable that, compared to structured mentors, informal mentors were more likely to report mentoring youth from the same ethnic and socioeconomic background. This is consistent with previous studies examining youth-reported informal mentoring relationships and suggests that such relationships, while providing important types of support, may not always diversify and stretch youth’s networks in ways that could contribute to upward social mobility.

These are just a few nuggets contained in this report. We look forward to engaging in the discussions, insights, and future endeavors that will inevitably be stimulated by this important report. In fact, along with Professor Samuel McQuillan, we have embarked on a series of studies that will draw on this treasure trove of data to further explore the characteristics and motivations of today’s mentors. We look forward to sharing these findings in the years ahead.