Mentor Retention Strategies

*Note: The National Mentoring Resource Center makes these “Insights for Mentoring Practitioners” available for each program or practice reviewed by the National Mentoring Resource Center Research Board. Their purpose is to give mentoring professionals additional information and understanding that can help them apply reviews to their own programs. You can read the full review on the National Mentoring Resource Center website.

Perhaps no resource is more precious to mentoring programs than the mentors who volunteer their time, energy, wisdom, connections, and friendship in support of a young person they’ve (most often) never met before. Viewed at a distance, mentoring may be one of the more intimidating experiences a volunteer can sign up for, in terms of both the frequency and duration of the commitment and the deeply personal nature of the experience. What you are often giving as a mentor is, literally, you. And depending on a thousand circumstances, the work of being a mentor may quite challenging. Keeping in mind these realities and that individuals who are inspired to take on the challenge of mentoring can be hard to come by, keeping mentors engaged and retained for as long as possible is a major goal of most programs.

Unfortunately, as noted in the review, there is little available research directly on the types of activities most often associated with mentor retention. Both studies referenced in the review were conducted on school-based programs serving primarily the elementary grades, which limits interpretations of the research even more. But there are clues in the studies presented here, as well as research from the broader field of volunteering, that speak to how programs might want to address mentor retention.

In 2007 BBBS school-based mentoring study by Herrera and colleagues frequency of summer interactions was remarkably greater when programs took steps to encourage and facilitate this type of contact. Summer contact, in turn (not surprisingly), was a robust predictor of mentors continuing with their mentees in programs the following school year. There were also several positive correlations between mentor reports on various aspects of program training and support (both of which are noted in the review’s discussion of theory behind mentor retention) and the likelihood of mentors “re-upping” for a second school year. These include their ratings of overall staff support, the helpfulness of mentoring program staff (BBBS, in this case) and all forms of training (group, pre-match, post-match).

The practices that may have led to these ratings were not rigorously or separately tested in the Herrera study, but within such categories, and the more deliberate efforts at retention that focused on ensuring continuity of contact despite natural program breaks, you can begin to see the DNA of how any mentoring program might approach mentor retention.

Until new research puts a finer point on it, there are several things that mentoring programs can do to potentially increase mentor retention and allow more youth to experience quality relationships:

1. Assess the motivations of mentors and try to be responsive to those motivations in your training and support services.

One of the most notable details about the changes in practice tested in the Canadian study referenced in the review is that all of the strategies seemed focused on increasing feelings of mentor efficacy⎯more training, more advice, more strategies to successfully interact with the youth’s network. All of these seemed designed to help the mentor feel more confident, competent, and capable of meeting the needs of youth over time. And this type of confidence and ability is clearly a good thing to be instilling in mentors.

But, feelings of self-efficacy are very different from feelings of motivation. None of these approaches was inherently focused on why mentors were doing mentoring in the first place or why they might want to keep the experience going (or not). Broader research on volunteering has sought to quantify or codify the motivations that volunteers have for getting involved with a cause or commitment. Frameworks like that which serves as the basis for the Volunteer Functions Inventory have noted that volunteers tend to get involved for diverse personal reasons. Although it is important to make sure that mentors feel capable, it might be even more critical to make sure that their individual motivations are being spoken to.

Related to motivation is the concept of expectations, but those are often about what the mentor hopes the experience will be like⎯the interventions in both of the review studies addressed expectations at some level. But speaking to expectations is also distinct from addressing those deeper personal motivations. If a mentor volunteers because she has concerns about the community, how does the program provide that volunteer with feedback that her efforts are helping on that front? If the motivation was “paying back” a mentoring experience from the mentor’s childhood, how can the program communicate that impact and help the mentor feel that he is achieving that goal for a member of the next generation? And if that volunteer’s motivation shifts over time⎯say, from concern for the next generation to concern over something happening in the mentee’s community⎯what is the program doing to ensure that they are aware of that shift and responding accordingly?

So make sure that your program is maximizing your response to mentor motivations, because mentors’ feelings of being up to the challenge is only half the battle. Make sure you address that other half by knowing what drives your mentors to do this work in the first place.

2. Up your match support game!

One of the many challenges to mentoring programs is keeping up with the frequency of match check-in calls or meetings with mentors, youth, and parents. It can be hard to reach participants in off-hours and program staff may be pulled in many directions that make adhering to the letter of a program’s check-in schedule difficult.

But there really are no good excuses for not meeting a program’s stated match check-in frequency. The intervention of mentoring begins when the match is made and it is imperative that staff keep their commitments at the same time they are expecting all the other participants to keep theirs. This is how programs keep their word and engender trust with mentors. Remember, the increased frequency of staff support in the BBBS Canada study was the only thing that was predictive of higher overall ratings of match support. Although this didn’t translate into a measurable difference in the year-to-year retention of mentors in the study, it was clear that the programs that upped the frequency were more likely to have mentors that felt like the program had their back.

In addition to frequency, there is good reason to expect that the depth of the conversation also matters. Going back to the motivations discussed previously, programs may want to emphasize information related to those specific motivations at every check-in. They may also want to provide other progress updates on how the youth is progressing and troubleshoot any communication challenges (between mentor and mentee or mentor and parent) that could inhibit the match moving forward. If you want mentors to keep feeling like they are part of a team effort that hits the right “notes,” then it may be imperative that communication is frequent, on point, and actionable in service of the relationship. A mentor who doesn’t have this level of support may be more likely to wonder if this is worth the effort.

3. Emphasize the “thanks!”

There are some mentors who may not want a lot of flashy recognition for their efforts. But most people really appreciate a warm-hearted “thank you” from others. Mentoring programs can often struggle to be as, well, “warm” as they would like to be. Saying thank you takes time. It requires a staff member doing something purposeful to let a mentor know that his or her contributions are valued. These types of tasks can often fall by the wayside as program staff scramble to help mentors navigate troubles and families deal with crises and challenges.

But look at your staffing patterns and see if there is a way that you can increase the amount of staff time dedicated to saying “thanks” to your mentors. Hold a staff meeting where you brainstorm new ideas for giving recognition to your mentors. Think about how technology can bring efficiencies or increased value to this task. Consider what funders or partners might be able to contribute to exciting new forms of recognition. What may well really matter is making the effort and leaving mentors feeling like they are not taken for granted. After all your volunteers have done to step up to the need in their community, saying “thank you” should be quite easy.

For more information on research-informed program practices and tools for implementation, be sure to consult the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring™ and the "Resources for Mentoring Programs" section of the National Mentoring Resource Center site.

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