Building a Strong Connected Rural Mentoring Program
JUNE 20, 2016
BY: TINA MCGUINNESS, EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, GUNNISON VALLEY MENTORS
Rural mentoring programs often find themselves walking the fine line between the need for local control while adhering to research-informed and practitioner-approved best practices. Because of the importance of responding to local circumstances, rural mentoring programs don’t always look like their urban counterparts.
Here are 3 big tips for balancing and strengthening your rural mentoring program.
1. Clear mission, vision and program goals.
Does everyone in your community know what you do? Is there a clear, consistent message about your program, its intent, its structure and outcomes? In rural communities, we often take on programs that are peripheral to our mission because we see the need and know there’s no one else to provide the service. While fringe programs may be necessary and valuable, they can also cloud your mentoring mission, confuse the community about what you really do, and divert already limited resources. If you are a private nonprofit, a yearly inventory of your program offerings, with a justification of how each program supports your mission, is a great way to stay on track. If your mentoring program is a component of local government or an umbrella nonprofit, do you have professional mentoring staff dedicated to your mentoring program? Does your mentoring program dedicate resources to develop staff competencies and encourage on-going training? No matter your structure and regardless of budgetary and travel barriers, professional development is vital to building your program’s integrity.
Most of us in rural communities don’t have a lot of marketing options or marketing dollars. Media access is limited when only a very few media outlets exist. Word-of-mouth is one of the most beneficial communication tools in rural settings, and integrating your organization into the community is the best way to join the grapevine. Invest in your own visibility by creating a Community-Integration plan. Is your mentoring program knowledgeable about other resources and services for families facing challenges? Do those other agencies know about you? The ability to connect people with resources is an essential leadership trait. In rural settings, the schools are often the hubs of community activity. How is your visibility and reputability within your schools? As mentoring organizations, we are in the business of building relationships. Use your mentoring skills to proactively extend your community involvement outside of your current stakeholder circle. One of the realities of small communities is that we can’t afford to duplicate our efforts or dilute our resources by working at cross-purposes. Mentoring programs provide the perfect soil for cultivating a climate of connection and developing an excellent sense of shared purpose.
3. Mentor Recruitment.
Ah, this again, and a struggle for all volunteer-based mentoring programs. Add the smaller pool of human resources to draw from in rural communities, and mentor recruitment becomes an even greater challenge. We mentor our youth to set goals. Why not model that in our own programs by setting recruitment goals? Establish a culture of “Everyone recruits, all the time,” even if you are fortunate enough to have a Recruitment / Marketing staff person. Encourage staff members to commit to a set number of contacts and speaking engagements each month, and require board members to submit one name of one potential mentor at each board meeting. Find ways to make your organization useful to other youth-serving groups and organizations. Read your weekly newspaper for happenings and send board members, staff or mentors as participants to all the goings-on, as well as advocating for your mentoring program. Talk with your newspaper to implement a “Mentoring Matters” promotion piece monthly, with weekly mentoring articles in January (National Mentoring Month) and April (National Volunteer Appreciation Month). Make a commitment to consistent maintenance of your website. Arrange a “benchmark” committee” from your supporters to survey successful mentoring programs and make recommendations for applying their strategies. Set up an advisory council consisting of parents, mentors, mentees and referral sources to assist with recruitment issues, strengthen the program, and offer advice and feedback. We allocate our time in alignment with our values, and what we spend time nurturing blossoms. With deliberate, consistent and conscious efforts to recruit mentors, you will get results.
These tips work. I know they work because we use them. Our rural mentoring program opened its doors in 1990. We were doing great work, but we found ourselves running all over the human services map with program offerings. Funds for mentoring were hard to come by, so we added programs based on funding availability. When funding dried up, one program would go away and another would start up. Our own staff wasn’t always sure what we were doing. In 2006, with 37 one-to-one mentoring partnerships, we began a new focus on our mission. By the end of 2015, we were supporting 282 one-to-one mentoring partnerships in a county of 15,000 people. We are mentoring more youth with higher quality partnerships. Application of the above recommendations led to our program growth and recognition as a respected community influence in creating positive change for young people.
High-quality, independent mentoring programs in rural communities absolutely exist. It’s entirely possible to blend sound best practices with indigenous nuances to create exceedingly impactful rural mentoring strategies. Now, how do we sustain those programs? That’s a whole new blog post!