By February 14, 2017 4 Comments Read More →

Predicting the future of mentoring programs

by Jean Rhodes

I predict that formal mentoring programs will become increasingly specialized, professionalized, and evidence-based in the years ahead. This is a positive development, particularly given that our field’s two most important barometers of success—the number of adults willing to serve as volunteer mentors and the effectiveness of these efforts—have not changed in the past decade. Indeed, despite the appeals of organizations, funding agencies, celebrities, researchers, and others, there appears to be a hard upper limit to the number of adults who are willing to give up their time in the service of a stranger—around 2.5 million or 1% of American adults (Raposa et al., in press). If we assume that some of the adults engage in group mentoring, we can roughly estimate that about 3.5 million (7%) or so of the 45.7 million American youth between the ages of 6 and 17 receive volunteer mentoring each year. Even if this percentage somehow doubled, we’d still be around 2% of adults. In other words, we’ll never span the elusive mentoring gap through recruitment efforts alone. So, in addition to continuing to encourage volunteerism and expanding approaches to natural mentoring, we need to double down on our efforts to get the most possible good out of those generous adults who are willing step forward.

And here’s where we need to take another look at the data. In particular, our recent, comprehensive meta-analysis of youth mentoring programs (Raposa et al., in preparation), like the comprehensive meta-analyses that preceded it (DuBois et al., 2011, DuBois et al., 2002), suggests that the effects of mentoring have hit an upper limit as well.  In particular, the overall effect size of mentoring remains at .21, which is indicative of a “small” effect according to common conventions (Cohen, 1988). Put differently, the average youth in a mentoring program scores about nine percentile points higher on indices of improvement than the average youth in the non-mentored control or comparison group (Cooper, 2010; DuBois et al., 2011). That’s not bad and, of course, there remains considerable variation across types of youth, mentors, and programs which helps us target and improve our efforts. But before we go too far into those weeds, we need to internalize the simple fact that the overall effectiveness of youth mentoring is stable despite the rapid growing base of research and evaluation findings in the field (Blakeslee & Keller, 2012). And, when we compare mentoring to other youth interventions, some of which require a relatively lighter investment in human and capital resources, we see that mentoring falls in the low to middle range of effectiveness (Gutman & Schoon, 2015).

This is not to say we should give up on volunteer mentoring programs. Far from it. But, if we’re going to improve that metric (and we most certainly can), we will have to become more disciplined in our approach and make better use of the opportunities that the 2.5 million volunteers present to us each year. And, since volunteer training is the most direct and efficient medium through which mentoring science is transferred into practice, evidence-based training is our best hope. Programs may pull from time-tested ideas, but few are evaluated against counterfactuals before they are disseminated. Such trainings may be more economical than expert trainings, but when the opportunity costs of under-realized volunteer and youth potential are factored in the calculus of such arguments break down. Psychologist John Wiesz and his colleagues made this point in their analysis of the effects of child and adolescent therapeutic approaches that were grounded in evidence (EB) versus therapist intuition (or what he called “usual care,” UC). The former had robust effects while the latter hovered around zero. And when he and his colleagues compared EB to UC head to head across 32 studies, they found that hat EB outperformed usual care. The average youth treated with an EB approaches was better off after treatment than 62% of youths who received UC. Evidence-trained therapists were more likely to use treatment manuals to use techniques that had shown efficacy. Mentoring researchers recently uncovered similar results in a study of mentors who were provided with expert versus usual care pre-match training. The former showed superior performance on a number of indicators (Kupersmidt et al., in press).  And, why shouldn’t this be the case? We know that mental health professionals, teachers, home nurse-practitioners, Social Emotional Learning (SEL) practitioners, and others are all more effective when they follow carefully-stipulated evidence-based practice. Why should mentoring be any exception?

EB trainings can consistently impart the core competencies and raise the bar. And, as we move forward, there is also a need for EB trainings that are specialized to target populations, e.g., the Foster Healthy Futures Project (Taussig, 2015) among others. To accomplish this, mentoring experts need to move from a “what works” mentality to to one of  “what works, for whom, and under what circumstances?” The National Mentoring Resource Center provides excellent direction in that regard. And all training, no matter how specific, should be carefully built on theory and evidence, rigorously evaluated, carefully reviewed, and then, and only then, widely disseminated. That’s how evidence makes its way into mentoring practice and that’s how program effectiveness improves.

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4 Comments on "Predicting the future of mentoring programs"

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  1. Interesting analysis. I led one volunteer-based tutor/mentor program in Chicago that grew from 100 pairs of 2nd-6th graders and workplace volunteers to 400 pairs over the 1975-1992 period. I formed a new program in 1993, serving 7th to 12th grade teens, that grew from 7 volunteers and 5 teens in 1993 to 80 pairs by 1998. Both grew because the program operated in a time frame when volunteers were available (after work) and the location on the Near North side of the city, within a corporate headquarters, made it relatively easy for volunteers to get there. However, they also grew because of the way we supported volunteer involvement, encouraging some to take leader roles and others to take social network building roles.

    There are a few other tutor/mentor programs in Chicago that have grown considerably over many years, and probably in other cities. I don’t find a lot of research (any?) focusing on participation rates, frequency of participation, or longevity. Thus, it’s difficult to summarize the number of such programs, or to learn from their strategies.

    At this link is an animation that shows how volunteer involvement can grow over multiple years if the volunteer in the program is well supported and encouraged to expand his/her role.

    Perhaps the projections of volunteer growth might expand if more programs were designed with this strategy in mind?

  2. Louise Yakey says:

    Robin, I would love to hear more about what you did as we are doing the same at our new school. Please contact me at Thank you!

  3. Nancy McNamara says:


  4. Robin says:

    I agree with what you are saying, Jean. I’d add a couple of positives to consider: firstly, the potential pool of adult mentors will be expanding as we have a larger group heading into retirement during the next few years. Secondly, with that in mind, perhaps the type of mentoring program, especially for adolescents needs to have a total shift and become school-based. I trialled this for two years in three Schools and it worked better than I had envisaged. When we asked for Expressions of Interest from other Schools after the trial, 19 schools in our local Community wanted to participate. However, for some unknown reason, the government cut all funding for programs like this, so we were unable to proceed. The ongoing problem? Funding! The key to those programs lay in the training of the Mentors (21 hours over 7 weeks – topics: self-image, goal setting, resiliency, communication, each Tutor receiving a Manual filled with heaps of tips and acknowledging all the research and resources). I am currently updating the training to link it to some of the more recent Neuroscience research which is, in particular, supported by reputable psychologists working with children. Some research we have done in Australia is suggesting that youth mentoring is going to become and increasing need in the years ahead.

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