Why It’s Important to Ask for Commitment When Recruiting Volunteer Mentors

Guest post by Kathy Witkowicki, Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance

A version of this article also appeared in the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Gene Truong, Mentee, and John Taylor, Mentor at Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance
Gene Truong, Mentee, and John Taylor, Mentor at Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance

When I speak to groups about mentoring, a question that invariably arises is what makes the most difference in mentoring at-risk youth. My response is always “mentor commitment.”

I find that adults who volunteer to mentor an at-risk boy or girl can only have a lasting positive impact if they are prepared to create an enduring relationship.

While there are mentoring programs that are successful using a short-term model, recent studies such as this one cite ‘time’ as the secret sauce of effective mentoring – the longer the match, the better the outcomes. It also shows that brief mentoring relationships that end prematurely can do more harm than if that child was never matched in the first place.

We’ve taken this to heart at the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance, so when we talk with potential volunteer mentors, we tell them they need to be prepared to “mentor for life.”

Yes, it’s a daunting request, but it’s also a great way to find those individuals who can make the biggest difference. As a result, we have been successful at weeding out the indecisive, non-committed volunteers, and attracting those willing to put forth the effort to enhance the life of an at-risk child.

I believe nonprofits should not be reluctant to ask for a high level of commitment, especially when volunteers, like our mentors, are integral to the organization’s mission. You may get fewer volunteers, but you will very likely get better ones.

Asking for commitment is one thing, however, you also have to follow through to support it.

We found it’s not enough simply to be a match-maker when it comes to pairing an adult with a child. It’s also vitally important to provide mentors with access to proper training, on-going education, motivational speakers, individual counseling and support groups.

There’s also the need to keep mentoring fun, which is why we supplement our K-12 school program with planned outings, field trips and social events for mentors and mentees on weekends and during summer vacation.

The result is we are seeing better outcomes. Among recent high school seniors in our program, eight out of ten have had the support of a mentor for at least six years, and half for eight years or more. This compares with a national average of six to twelve months for most school-based mentoring programs, and two years for community-based programs. Our program comprises both models.

Most important, our mentees, who were referred to us because they were at a higher risk of dropping out, are graduating in numbers equal to their peers, and are also moving on to college at a comparable rate.

We realize the world is not perfect, and our “mentoring for life” mantra is a goal, not a promise. The reality is that some committed mentors will need to leave their mentees after a short relationship for very understandable reasons. But by articulating this vision early, we raise the bar regarding expectations and thus attract the best volunteers from our community. The youth we serve deserve no less.

Kathy Witkowicki is Executive Director of the Sonoma Valley Mentoring Alliance in Sonoma, California. Her comments are drawn from her presentation at the 2013 National Mentoring Summit on the subject of “How To Keep Your Mentors Mentoring For Life.”