Should mentors be compensated? Two experts weigh in

Professor Timothy Cavell is the Director of Clinical Training at the University of Arkansas. He is also the Director of the Center for Research on Aggression and Victimization (CRAV). Primarily, CRAV’s researchers are interested in the development of effective interventions for school age children that may be on their way to having problems as they grow.

Sometimes it makes sense to compensate mentors

Do you think that mentors should be compensated for the time they put into working with youth?  Although more intensive programs are associated with better youth outcomes, programs must balance the potential benefits of more intensive relationships with potentially greater difficulty recruiting and retaining volunteer mentors. Some programs have addressed this tension by offering incentives to mentors, often through academic credit for college students  or a paid para-professional position involving a caseload of several youth  Although compensation may increase the extent to which mentors fulfill their obligations it also may reduce intrinsic, internal motivation–or send the wrong message to youth. Do you see this trend of compensating mentors is a good idea?

There is little evidence that compensating mentors is always needed. Mentoring has been operating for a long time and with great success through the “kindness of strangers” who volunteer their time. I’ve been a Big Brother for nearly a year, I have no plans to stop, and I’m not looking for compensation. But there are circumstances when it makes good sense to compensate mentors. One is when programs need to ensure consistent visits in short-term school-based mentoring (SBM). We use college students as Lunch Buddy mentors for children who are bullied or are highly aggressive. Given SBM can be harmful when mentors are inconsistent (Karcher, 2009), Lunch Buddy mentors enroll in a 3-credit college course. This helps ensure consistency with minimal match support and on-site monitoring.

Compensating mentors also makes sense when promoting multi-year matches with challenging youth. For example, Friends of the Children (FotC) has the ambitious goal of mentoring high-risk children over a 12-year span. Mentors have a caseload of several children, they meet for a few hours each week, matches can last 5-6 years, and mentors are paid.  Why? First, parents of FotC children often struggle to maintain their relationships: Nearly 50% of FotC children are later placed into foster care. Secondly, Grossman and Rhodes (2002) found that 55% of BBBSA matches didn’t reach the 1-year mark and youth with greater psychosocial risks were likely to have matches end early. Thus, maintaining a multi-year FotC match is no easy task! As a Big, I regularly face obstacles (e.g., travel, scheduling, feelings of discouragement) just to visit my Little each week. When obstacles mount (and benefits recede), many Bigs give up. Compensating FotC mentors is one way to keep mentors invested in the life of a child.

But are paid mentors less intrinsically motivated to serve youth, and is that harmful? Research has yet to address this question but I offer two points. First, compensation will broaden your pool of potential mentors. A steady salary will entice some ill-fitted folks to do long-term CBM, so selection and training must be thorough. FotC staff are highly selective in who they hire, so they combine compensation, intrinsic motivation, and required skills. Course credit will entice some ill-equipped folks to do short-term SBM, but if consistent visits are combined with a clear, workable structure, there will be less variability from one mentor to the next.

Secondly, don’t assume that compensating mentors eliminates intrinsic motivation or leads to poor performance and poor relationships. As a clinical psychologist, I’m paid for therapy I provide. This work can be fairly intense and the therapeutic relationship is often quite intimate. I know that my performance, especially in more difficult cases, is aided by the fact that I’m compensated for my time and expertise.

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A risky strategy!

Art Stukas, Ph.D. is Senior Lecturer at La Trobe University in Australia. He and his colleagues (Gil Clary and Mark Snyder) have been studying volunteer motivations and have conducted a series of studies testing their “Functional Approach to Volunteerism” and have made significant contributions to our understanding of volunteer practice.

Although it may seem tempting to offer rewards and incentives to encourage volunteers to take up mentoring or to persist with it through difficult times — after all, everybody seems to benefit — this is a risky strategy for a mentoring program to choose. A basic psychological principle, with more than forty years of research support, suggests that external pressures, be they rewards, requirements, or other social influences, can reduce intrinsic interest and motivation for activities. Providing expected and tangible rewards (like money) for engaging in or completing a task that was initially interesting can reduce willingness to engage freely in the task subsequently as well as later intrinsic interest.  Mentors may come to ask “why would I do this if I don’t get paid?” So, programs that offer compensation may decrease the pool of potential mentors who would volunteer freely — leading to the necessity of every program having to pay its mentors (if you take this argument to its logical conclusion). Worse yet, if mentors begin to perceive that this is an activity that requires compensation in order to entice people to get involved, then youth too may begin to think that their mentors are only there for the money and not for more altruistic reasons, which could have damaging effects on the relationship and its outcomes.

Involving university students in mentoring through their academic studies also seems like a good idea, because the benefits available to participants in community service are well documented. However, universities that make service a requirement may find that their programs backfire if students feel coerced into participating. Gil Clary, Mark Snyder, and I examined the effects of required service-learning programs, finding that students who perceived the requirements to be more controlling were less likely to intend to volunteer in the future. The undermining of self-perceptions of autonomy, an important human need according to psychological theory, can result from both requirements and the presence of tangible rewards and this may help to explain future failures to act. As such, we recommended that programs that required students to volunteer should also give them the flexibility to choose their own ways of meeting the requirement, such as a choice of organizations or activities. Recent research has confirmed that autonomously chosen prosocial behaviors, as opposed to those performed for more extrinsic reasons, are associated with both greater well-being for volunteers and better outcomes for recipients of their help. Mentoring programs that add compensation may end up undermining the motivation and performance of their mentors, as well as the outcomes that their programs can deliver. Focusing on the less tangible benefits that mentoring can provide (such as opportunities to act on important values, feel good about oneself, or gain a greater understanding of the world or social issues), may prove a wiser way to recruit mentors and to maintain their commitment.

3 Comments on "Should mentors be compensated? Two experts weigh in"

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  1. Bill Godwin says:

    I give 3 year tiered scholarships to college soph-sr provided they perform 3 years of mentoring at-risk 4th-8th graders at local, pre-approved after school mentoring programs in Oakland/Berkeley area. The scholarships are tiered so that there is an incentive to stay with the mentoring for the full 3 years. The scholarship is paid directly to the university office of financial aid and scholarship, in the students account. This way, they scholarship is not looked at as compensation for mentoring, but as a scholarship for higher education. I have been able to lower the total scholarship amount for future awardees, as I have learned the the mentor/mentee relationship develops to the point where the mentor is probably willing to do it for free. However, I see the need for financial aid for school, so this program kills two birds with one stone.

  2. Ross Barns says:

    I have run and own a fee for service mentoring/support organisation for young and older males for 7 years in the Mental health and disabilities sector in Queensland Australia. All our Mentors are paid above our award and get regular supervision, BBQs at monthly team meetings and lots of training in mental health and disabilities where we all so provide a great meal beforehand . Our Mentors are no less committed to their clients because they receive compensation. We have a very strong caring and relational culture. We work with the most difficult young men with at times extreme behaviours. Our team of mentors are internally motivated because no amount of money or reward other than to see clients move forward in their lives no matter how much that may be would compensate them for the behaviours they need to deal with on a daily basis and why should mentoring be any different from any other carer or health role . I don’t believe that compensating people for the efforts in seeing others succeed no matter what their circumstances is a negative but a way of saying thank you for your commitment and time. The other thing is that if you compensate people for their efforts then you can also to some degree have higher expectations on them in my experience in the social welfare sector and mentoring has been that just because people have a caring nature does not mean they should be caring for people, as humans are such a complex being that paying Mentors means that they should also have some qualifications or be very well trained in in understanding the complexity of relationships and the impact they can have on others if they are not reflective on their own behaviours or understand their own attachment style or the mentee’s .Our type of mentee’s could not just have anyone work with them they need well trained Mentors who are committed to their clients no matter what (unconditional positive regard so they should be compensated through any means possible. Everyone needs to be felt valued so it should be that if we value the work we are trying to provide to our Mentee’s then we should value the people doing the work . Only people who are intrinsicly motivated would do this work no matter what anyway so why not appreciate them. I get told all the time people even in my industry say that they would not do what we do for any amount of money so only those committed to helping others would do it anyway.

  3. Brian Sales says:

    Compensating mentors is a necessary and needed approach when mentoring youth that are system involved–foster care, children of incarcerated parents, youthful offenders, and gang mentoring programs. Far too often, these types of organizations are unable to attract “volunteers” to work with these targeted populations because of the very serious challenges that these young people face. Moreover, in my direct experience as both a practitioner and technical assistance consultant, I’ve seen programs attract individuals who come from a variety of backgrounds: 1) youth workers looking for part-time work; 2) mentors from a similar background that have direct experience with challenges that these youth face; 3) formerly incarcerated mentors who have transformed themselves and offer themselves as alternative models to emulate. At the end of the day, mentoring as practice can’t wait for the research community to offer “academic solutions.” Program people have long offered, targeted, specific strategies based on their own practice based evidence experiences that are worthwhile and warrant more academic review.

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