Matching Strategies Informed by Participant Characteristics

*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.

Practitioners may be surprised that the evidence behind this practice has been rated here as “insufficient research” since the vast majority of mentoring programs do seemingly take things like race and ethnicity, similar interests, shared personal backgrounds and experiences, and other personal traits into consideration when matching youth and volunteers⎯this arguably has been a cornerstone practice of mentoring programs for decades. But what this review highlights as much as anything is how rarely this practice has actually been tested in controlled experiments. In fact, one could argue that this practice is so ubiquitous that it’s prevented researchers from taking much of a look at it. Only three studies met the criteria established by our NMRC Research Board.

But let’s take a closer look at those studies as they provide some positive news and hints for practitioners on how to weigh participant characteristics when making matches.

1. Characteristics matter when matching, but the devil is in the details.

Keep in mind that many successful programs do match along these considerations, as noted quite well in the 2011 meta-analysis. The broadest evidence that this practice has real meaning for match success comes from the 2011 meta-analysis by DuBois and colleagues. This combined analysis of several mentoring program evaluations compared the results of programs that took similarity of mentor and mentee interests into account I matching decisions with those that did not (or at least, appeared not to). The former programs tend to show larger estimated impacts on youth outcomes. Notably, the practice also “earned entry” into a best-fitting prediction equation that took into consideration the potential contributions of many other meaningful program practices (e.g., mentor training).

Given the evidence to suggest the importance of this matching strategy, why is the overall rating so ambiguous about the value?

The other two studies discussed in the review further highlight how little we know about how specific characteristics matter when making matches. These two studies both tried to isolate what was considered to be a key characteristic in the programs in question: race in a program designed to interest youth in careers in media (particularly from minority groups that might be underrepresented in media careers); disability in a program designed to encourage youth with disabilities to consider STEM careers. These studies tested whether same-race matches and matches where mentor and mentees shared disability status, respectively, were more effective across many outcomes than matches where mentors and mentees differed on those dimensions. Nether study found much of any meaningful difference in terms of either match or youth outcomes when comparing these groups.

One implication of these results for practitioners is that when we look at the value of any one participant characteristic in isolation, we may not find much evidence for matching along that one variable alone. Mentoring relationships, like all human relationships, are complicated things that are influenced by many, many factors. Single characteristics like a shared ethnicity or a mutual love of basketball, for example, in a given program may be important, but only one of many factors that contribute to the success of a match. Shared race may not matter all that much if they two don’t have anything in common and personalities that don’t mesh. So a study that tries to focus on the importance of any one characteristic as the determining factor may not find much compared to thinking about multiple characteristics working in concert.

It’s also worth noting that this review’s definition of participant characteristics also excluded other more logistical matching considerations that many practitioners would likely say are critically important for helping to ensure more frequent and longer match activities, such as compatible schedules for meeting and geographic proximity. Although not quite qualifying as “personal characteristics” such logistical factors might outweigh everything else when it comes to making a successful match. A pair that struggles to meet because of logistics seems almost doomed to fail in spite of how well their personal traits match up on paper.

Keeping this in mind, programs might be best taking a tiered approach to thinking about match-making: Starting with an initial filter of meeting compatibility and logistical “fit” and then moving on to factoring in the types of personal characteristics that the program’s theory of change suggest might be meaningful (for example, shared ethnicity in a program designed to help recent immigrants from many cultures integrate into a new community). Even then, the findings of this review suggest that programs will be well-advised in the absence of robust supporting evidence to not assume the importance of any particular personal characteristics for positive match or outcomes, even when doing so may seem quite logical (e.g., disability status in a program for youth with disabilities).

Programs likewise should refrain from assuming that the “insufficient research” rating of this review gives them license to ignore the intersection of personal characteristics of mentors and mentees when matching. If anything, the three studies viewed as a whole beg for even more careful consideration of what characteristics might matter most for what a program is trying to achieve.

2. Remember that good matching starts with good recruitment.

It can be impossible to match effectively across participant characteristics if your program has recruited individuals who don’t possess the right characteristics in the first place. Although many mentoring programs are willing to take any caring adult who can pass the safety checks and participate fully in training and the match itself, other programs may need to be much more intentional in their recruitment. They may find that there are critical personal characteristics⎯a particular background or experience from their own childhood, for example⎯that seem to not only make matching to the youth they serve easier but also help the matches be successful in the long run.

One study not mentioned in the review that perhaps highlights the importance of recruiting with intentionality is the Role of Risk study released in 2013. This research project sought to advance understanding of the capacity of mentoring programs to be of benefit for youth with elevated risk profiles and the conditions or practices most likely to foster that goal. For the most part, the study’s findings suggested that programs were able to serve higher risk youth as effectively as lower risk youth. However, mentors paired with higher-risk youth were more likely to report several challenges associated with their matches. These included mismatched personalities and interests and a lack of preparation for and experience with the types of individual and environmental risk factors that youth were facing. With potential direct relevance to these perceived obstacles, the report authors noted that “only 12% of mentors reported having experienced poverty” and that only “two fifths reported that they had not faced any of the challenges we asked about in our survey (including family struggles, school challenges and problems with parent or peer relationships).” Almost a third had no experience even working with youth of these backgrounds. Only 9% of mentees, furthermore, were matched with a mentor who shared their race and ethnicity.

The study itself did not test to see if these mismatches across personal backgrounds and characteristics were predictive of match failure or whether matching along similarities boosted outcomes. The question is unanswered therefore as to whether these programs were matching effectively or whether these were mentors with the right lived experience to connect with these youth in the first place. Still, it is worth noting that 28% of mentors said differences in interests and personalities were a challenge in the match, with 21% and 15% noting challenges around bridging racial and socioeconomic differences respectively.

And to the point made above, 66% of mentors noted that it was their schedule to meet that was a major challenge, with 48% citing logistical challenges in arranging and executing meetings as being a challenge. Those logistical challenges seem to be prominent for many mentors, even when the personal characteristics are well-matched.

3. Don’t forget about the factor of participant expectations.

Another challenge noted in the Role of Risk study was mentor’s inaccurate expectations about what the experience would be like. Almost a quarter of mentors said they did not anticipate the types of needs the youth had or how much time and effort it would take to establish a relationship. Almost half indicated that the needs of the youth’s family were a surprise.

The impact of the experience of mentoring not matching participant expectations is a subject addressed recently on the NMRC website with the release of Tools to Strengthen Match Support and Closure. One of the consistent themes in the mentoring research into failed matches is that of participants reporting that they have abandoned relationships because the experience differed too dramatically from what they were expecting. A recent OJJDP-funded study of matches, has also shed considerable light onto this issue, including how parent and youth expectations for the mentoring experience may also lead to match struggles if they do not align with how the interactions with mentors and program staff play out over time. (Watch the NMRC site for more information on this study as the final report is released in late 2017.)

In the wake of this research suggesting the importance of clarifying participant expectations heading into the match, the NMRC has developed a set of questions programs can ask to help clarify what everyone in a potential match wants the experience to be like. Answers to these questions may not exactly count as personal “characteristics” but they are highly personal information about what everyone wants to experience. Just like those logistical factors discussed above, these participant expectations also may be part of the complicated stew of matching the right youth and parent with the right mentor and even the right staff member who will be providing support. Practitioners are thus encouraged to take a fairly holistic view of matching criteria and give ample consideration to all three buckets of information: logistics, characteristics, and expectations. Relying too heavily on any one of these factors might lead to matches that face an uphill battle in connecting and enduring.

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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