Match Support for Mentors

*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.

Although the review of the evidence around match support of mentors came up inconclusive⎯with studies finding positive, neutral, and even negative correlations between staff support and mentoring relationship outcomes⎯most practitioners working in youth-serving programs will agree that mentors should not simply be matched with a child and left to their own devices. In addition to the obvious safety-related reasons for checking in with mentors, the reality is that ongoing support of volunteer mentors is widely assumed to be critical in ensuring that the relationships a program is responsible for are of high quality.

One could argue, in spite of the insufficient evidence gathered to date, that the support you give mentors along their journey may well be at the heart of program success. It’s what may be crucial for ensuring sufficient adherence to the theory of change of the program. Any prevention or intervention effort, from drug treatment to teaching remedial math skills to helping children regulate their emotions, may be as successful only as the service providers are in implementing the program with fidelity to the original vision. And if the vision for your program is that mentors act in certain ways, convey certain messages, and foster improvement in specific areas, then the ongoing support your staff provides to these volunteers may be what keeps the whole enterprise from being left to chance. Mentor support may be what makes a struggling mentor effective and makes a good mentor a great one.

So although the research to date has found limited evidence to quantify the difference that mentor support makes, there is almost universal agreement among mentoring professionals about its importance in terms of ensuring program fidelity and the viability of using volunteers as the delivery mechanism for the “service” of mentoring.

So given its potential importance, what should practitioners keep in mind as they think about strengthening match support in their program? What can we learn from the research examined in this practice review?

Track the support you provide mentors!

One of the more interesting aspects of the research included in this review is that many of the analyses of mentor-staff interactions where based on mentors’ reports of how much contact they had with staff. Only one study based the analysis on programmatic records of mentor support activities. It may be a coincidence that that was the only study to have “promising” evidence in support of this practice. But it does beg the question as to whether mentors’ recollections alone are sufficient to gauge the amount and quality of support that your program is providing.

Although most programs do a good job of tracking the basics of match meetings from a risk management perspective (when and where the pair met, what they did, issues that came up, etc.), they often don’t spend as much time tracking the topics and level of support that mentors are requesting. It can be tremendously helpful to have match support staff keeping more detailed records about the types of supports that mentors are requesting, the advice and referrals to other services offered as a response, and how well the proposed solutions to the problems mentors express work.

Tracking match support with this level of details accomplishes many things:

  • It paints a realistic picture of the amount of work that goes into supporting matches for the mentors and youth in your specific program. This can help tremendously with budgeting, staffing, and program scale decisions.

  • It provides a list of topics to address more thoroughly in future pre-match trainings. If you see ongoing patterns of need in your mentors, or common mistakes or friction points in your matches, then those are topics that can be focused on more intently or in different ways in future mentor training.

  • It ensures that your program is holding up its end of the bargain. Although not every program studied in the research presented in this review had a rigid expectation around match support check-ins, it is striking to see that in many of the programs only on the order of 60-70% of the mentors reported that they got the monthly check-ins that their programs likely promised them. That means that perhaps a third of mentors were not getting (or at least registering) the staff attention and support they were promised. That’s something that your program can improve on only if you know where you stand in terms of the data.

So consider tracking match support more closely and in more detail and be prepared to respond accordingly with program changes based on the information you gather.

Consider other supplements to your match support that go beyond just those labor-intensive staff check-ins.

It’s worth noting that this review of evidence looked only at the support given to mentors by staff during their regular check-in processes (or, in some cases, at the initiation of mentors based on need). It did not include strategies like:

  • Mentor support groups or peer learning sessions – Almost any gathering of mentors, from a “happy hour” to a weekend “rap session” is likely to yield some positive peer learning and information sharing about how to be a better mentor. Just remember that mentors need to respect confidentiality at these types of meetings!

  • Program-wide group activities – Usually group activities are held at the end of the year or as an occasional celebration of progress in the program. But these opportunities in and of themselves are a form of match support. They can get mentors feeling less isolated in their work, facilitate some of that peer learning about the art of mentoring, and give matches that have been struggling in a one-on-one meeting structure a chance at a fresh start or different type of bonding activity.

  • Ongoing training – Chances are that the types of support asked for by mentors will often need additional training and skill development as part of the solution. So think about how your program coordinates the topics and timing for ongoing training of mentors. That should work in concert with the check-in schedule and the analysis of the types of support needed.

Err on the side of too much contact with mentors

Yes, it’s perhaps the most labor-intensive aspect of running a program (it’s up there with mentor recruitment and fundraising), but your program is likely better off getting in touch with mentors too often rather than too infrequently. Infrequent and inconsistent check-ins let issues linger in relationships and allow for mentors and mentees to become dissatisfied with their experience of the program. Consider simpler and cost-effective ways of staying in touch with mentors, such as texting out a “mentoring tip of the day” or making the most of your social media presence. You don’t need an intensive phone call every week to deliver bits of advice or make sure that participants don’t have a burning need.

Talk about match support with your colleagues in the mentoring and youth development worlds

In many ways, mentoring practitioners are savvier about learning and applying research to their work than ever before. But this is one area of running a program where no amount of research can supplant the practitioner wisdom and institutional knowledge that comes from doing this work with mentors, youth, and families day-in and day-out. Program coordinators and match support specialists learn over time just how to calm a mentor’s fears, help smooth over communication challenges, and suggest meaningful activity ideas. They know how to handle specific scenarios or meet common challenges, all within the context of their programs. Program staff should periodically review challenging match support “case files” and discuss what the staff member did, whether it worked, and what others in the program can learn from and do differently in the future. These conversations are also extremely valuable cross-program, where you can hear different perspectives and philosophies about how to best support mentors. So within the bounds of what you can share with respect to confidentiality, don’t be afraid to discuss mentor support challenges with your coworkers and colleagues in other programs. While the research may still be searching for something concrete to say about this topic, chances are that your peers in the mentoring and youth development fields have a wealth of ready-to-use tips and suggestions just waiting for you. So as we encourage mentors to meet relationships challenges head on, be willing to do the same from the staff perspective when you are unsure about how to provide the right support in a key moment for a mentor in need.

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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