Are You My Mentor?

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There’s this guy, a writer. Coaches a boys’ baseball team. He sees the kids three times a week; they have a great time. He gets to know a few of them and their families beyond baseball, but his relationship with most of the boys ends with the three-month season.

Is Patrick Boyle a mentor?

“Yes,” says Lisa Dougherty, mentoring services director at The Arc of Omaha, in Nebraska.

“Probably in some way,” says Alayne Shoenfeld, partnership development manager at the Memphis Mentoring Partnership, in Tennessee.

“No, I think you’re a coach,” says Roxanne McCright , executive director of Big Pals~Little Pals, in Columbus, Neb.

Anyone see a problem here?

A lot of people in the mentoring field do. As the popularity of youth mentoring has exploded in recent years, the meaning of the term has become elastic.

“The mentoring bandwagon,” writes Dan Johnson, executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis. “First tutors, coaches, scout leaders, etc. became ‘mentors.’ Then mentoring lite programs, including electronic ‘e-mentoring’ jumped on board.”

“Everybody today is calling their organizations mentoring organizations,” says McCright, whose Big Pals~Little Pals didn’t even use that term when it began 34 years ago. “I think it’s gone overboard a bit.”

A report released last month by Mentor/National Mentoring Partnership says the number of youth involved in one-to-one mentoring has increased by nearly 20 percent since 2002, to 3 million. (See Report Roundup, page 21.) The U.S. Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) wants to create another 3 million mentoring relationships by 2010. That would give us more mentors than there are people in any city in America except New York.

Does the nation really have 3 million mentors, in the true sense of the word? Can it double that? The spread of mentoring raises questions about what mentoring is, and who is a mentor.

Those questions were posed in calls and e-mails to people who run and study mentoring programs, and to the parents of the boys on the baseball team. What came back were some passionate answers, and a sense of fog.

“Even those of us in the mentoring field often have a difficult time agreeing on the definition,” writes Carrie Moffett, senior director of operations at YouthFriends, in Kansas City, Mo.

That can sure make it tough to run and evaluate mentoring programs. “When the definition of formal mentoring gets watered down, so does the quality. That’s the dangerous aspect of leaving it ill-defined,” writes Michael Garringer, who moderates the 1,634-member MentorExchange listserv run by the National Mentoring Center in Portland, Ore.

Also at stake are a hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants each year for mentoring. With the departments of Justice, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, and Housing and Urban Development funding all sorts of mentoring through myriad programs, CNCS last month announced a new Federal Mentoring Council to coordinate it all.

“As funders have warmed to mentoring it has become quite popular,” writes Johnson, of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis. “Now it seems almost any adult or even peer to peer contact with a young person is defined as ‘mentoring.’ ”

Mentoring Boom

The root of the problem is that the word is inherently malleable. “Mentoring is a term that applies to all kinds of different settings,” says researcher Thomas Smith, who has examined mentoring for the nonprofit research group Public/Private Ventures.

“Mentor” comes from the Greek story The Odyssey, in which King Odysseus, before going to war, assigns a friend to teach his son to how to be a good leader. The friend’s name is Mentor.

“Mentor” has since been defined in many ways, but to most people it is essentially an older, experienced person who takes a younger person under his wing and guides him professionally or personally. Those informal relationships usually develop naturally, often with teachers, coaches and other youth workers, and surveys indicate they are more common than formal mentoring.

A baseball coach, for instance, can evolve into an informal mentor for a few kids, “but to most of them, you are simply their coach,” says Cindy Sturtevant, director of training and technical assistance for Mentor.

Formal mentoring – in which a mentor/mentee match is planned through a structured organization – has gotten hot intermittently over the past two decades, such as when President Clinton urged the country in the early 1990s to develop “a million mentors” for kids.

A LexisNexis search for mentions of “mentoring” in major U.S. newspapers in 1985 turned up four stories. By 1990, there were 113 stories. The searches for 1995 and 2000 got halted because, a message said, “it will return more than 1,000 documents.”

The Justice Department’s discontinued Juvenile Mentoring Program (commonly known as JUMP) sometimes received more than 1,000 applicants for 100 grants. From 1995 to 2005, it awarded more than $50 million to 261 programs, according to the National Mentoring Center, which was created and is funded by the U.S. Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

But it seems that mentoring’s meaning has expanded more than its actual practice. “It’s broadening and it’s getting fuzzy,” says consultant David Owen, who provides technical assistance and evaluation to youth agencies in New York City, including agencies that have a “mentoring” component.

“Oftentimes it’s something that’s cobbled together and people are calling it mentoring,” he says. “You start asking, ‘What’s the percentage of your mentors that are meeting regularly [with their mentees]?’ and ‘How long is the match for?’ and you realize they’re not quite adhering” to best practice guidelines, such as the ones established by Mentor.

Among the programs that have touted themselves as mentoring in recent years: The Good Knight Child Empowerment Network, created by former police military personnel, through which kids learn to protect themselves from crime (such as assaults), get Knight certificates and teach the strategies to other kids. The program’s website says it seeks to “educate youth mentors and transform them into Knight’s Champions, protectors of the innocent.”

What is It?

Definitions of mentoring by those dedicated to spreading it – such as Mentor and the new Federal Mentoring Council – are so broadly inclusive that just about any good youth work can be molded to fit. That makes sense if you’re trying bring the total number of mentors to 6 million.

“There are certainly more opportunities to reach young people if you broaden that definition,” says council Director Theresa Clower, former director of the Delaware Mentoring Council.

So are coaches mentors? “If they’re impacting that kid in a positive way so that young person can realize his or her potential … then it is, in fact, mentoring,” Clower says.

Others feel that opens the door to calling every teacher, coach and youth worker a mentor. “Everybody you come in contact with can influence you,” McCright says. “That doesn’t mean they’re good mentors. … The word mentoring is being overused.”

Carla Herrera, who has published studies on mentoring for Public/Private Ventures, says a youth worker who sometimes engages in mentor-like activities “is providing guidance for a brief period of time. … Mentoring is something beyond that.”

“Many new to mentoring think that anyone who has an even passing relationship with a child can be thought of as a mentor,” writes Garringer of the National Mentoring Center. “They don’t seem to realize that simply being around a kid, regardless of how much that kid listens and respects you, doesn’t inherently make someone a mentor. A role model, maybe.”

Perhaps “mentoring” can be defined by identifying specific elements in the way mentoring is carried out.

Does a mentoring relationship have to last a certain amount of time? Mentoring definitions typically refer to a “sustained” relationship, while programs say that means at least a year.

Many school-based programs, however, last six to 10 months. “Mentoring 2005,” the report released last month by Mentor, said that most mentoring relationships last an average of nine months, and that 38 percent last 12 months.

How about the mentor/mentee ratio?

“I believe it is a 1:1 relationship,” writes Nancy Paschall, development director of Northern Neck Together. That reflects a common view, built on the Big Brothers Big Sisters model.

In order to reach more kids, however, some organizations employ group mentoring, where one mentor meets with, say, four to 10 youth at a time.

Does a mentor have to be a volunteer?

Most are, and program directors seem to prefer it. But many are not willing to close the door on the concept of paid mentors, which has gained traction in some programs. (See “Mentoring Pays Off,” September 2004.) If they’re paid, however, aren’t they something we’ve long had a name for: youth workers?

Do mentors have to be older than the mentees? Usually, but at the Arc of Omaha – which provides mentors to developmentally disabled teens – “we have several mentors that are younger than our mentees,” says Dougherty, the mentoring services director.

She, for one, says mentoring must occur face to face. Not everyone agrees; witness the growth of “e-mentoring.”

What It Isn’t

For many in the mentoring field, the key lies in the fundamental nature of the relationship, not the action. They focus on intent, or what the relationship is primarily about.

“We see a lot of youth development programs that have mentoring aspects to them,” says Polly Roach, vice president of Mentoring Partnership of Minnesota. “That doesn’t mean the workers are mentors.”

Nothing draws more heat in this regard than tutoring programs that tout themselves as mentoring.

Consider Tennessee Mentorship, in which youth from a high school tutor elementary school kids that they’ve been matched with. The founder and director of the program, William Byrne, says the high schoolers carry out their work at an elementary school, and that “maybe 70 to 80 percent of the activities are academic.”

Byrne has talked about joining the Memphis Mentoring Partnership, but Partnership Development Manager Shoenfeld says Byrne’s program is not mentoring. “The purpose of tutoring is academic achievement and support,” she says. “The purpose of mentoring is not raising your scores on tests.”

Byrne counters that “a good tutor is certainly a good mentor, a good role model.”

Even in school-based Big Brothers Big Sisters programs, the “bigs” are not supposed to focus on school work with their “littles.”

They can sometimes help with that, says Chief Operating Officer Mack Koonce, but “for us, mentoring is not tutoring. Mentoring is friendship.”

No one draws the line between mentoring and other youth services more strongly than the National Mentoring Center’s Garringer, who writes:

“If a program is going to call itself a mentoring program, then mentoring better be the primary service they offer and their matches better be developmentally focused. You can work on grades, getting into college, staying off drugs and out of gangs. ... But if the relationship itself isn’t the primary focus of your agency’s work, then stop talking about yourself as a mentoring program. You’re doing something else using adults to help youth (and god bless ya) but it ain’t mentoring.”

The parents of the boys on my baseball team recognized the distinction in a different way. “Am I a mentor to your sons?” I asked in an e-mail.

One mother said a mentor has to reach a kid “individually,” which I’ve done with her son, whom I know outside of baseball. I hope I’ve reached him and other boys that way. But the parents also said a mentoring relationship must be long-term and intense, that it should include a lot of one-on-one time, and that the mentoring aspect must be intentional for both parties.

By those standards, I don’t earn the title. I certainly can’t pay whatever price might be set by Johnson, the executive director of Kinship of Greater Minneapolis.

“The mentoring bandwagon has indeed gotten crowded,” he writes. “Perhaps it is time to increase the cost of admission to ride along?”


Mentoring Partnership
Alexandria, Va.
(703) 224-2200

National Mentoring Center
Portland, Ore.
(800) 547-6339, ext. 135