Challenging Youth Mentoring Program Issues

There were many challenging issues facing the youth mentoring movement in Canada and the USA when I visited them. I do not believe in reinventing the wheel and know that we can learn a great deal from the experiences of people who have spent more time working in this field than anyone I know of in Australasia. Most of the issues I encountered seem to be common in many programs in Australasia as well. Some of the more important issues include:

  • Securing adequate funding to make programs sustainable appears to have become more and more of an issue, especially for smaller programs and those in more remote, rural areas.
  • The high program staff turnover for a number of reasons which could include:
    • Too many demands on staff led to burn out.
    • Programs being understaffed, largely due to lack of funding.
    • Average pay; long hours of work, including evenings and weekends.
    • Those with volunteer arrangements i.e. work off a study grant in return for volunteer work, tended to work for a year and then move on.
    • Some saw this work as a stepping-stone into working in other community or not-for-profit organizations.
    • Frustration at the lack of funding for much-needed resources.
    • Staff working with adolescents found the work more demanding and challenging than those working with age groups 7 – 11.
    • Staff found it more and more complex to stay on top of very challenging issues eg, mental health problems being faced by young people.
  • An inordinate amount of time spent completing application forms for funding, grants, or other financial support. Is a $2000 Grant worth this time when many programs are already understaffed? This was a common question asked by program staff.
  • Government bureaucratic red tape. Again, far too much time spent completing forms. While program staff understood the reason for this, the general feeling was that the government could produce more user-friendly, less demanding forms to complete, showing a far greater understanding of the difficult conditions many programs are working under as they invest time and energy into needy young people.
  • As corporate volunteer mentors were unable to gain release time from work to participate in school-based programs especially, this was restricting the effectiveness of some of these programs. However, in some States employers were granting release time for their employees. The positive effect of such practice for all parties has been well-researched.
  • Some programs are restricted due to the lack of efficient public transport systems. This has led to the growth of more school-based programs in these areas. The one major drawback of school-based programs compared to community programs, where mentors tend to meet with mentees over weekends and outside school hours, is that the mentoring relationships do not continue during holiday periods. However, school-based programs, well run, can be a transformational experience for many mentors and young people.
  • Some school-based programs face opposition from Unions opposed to teachers taking on more responsibilities e.g, volunteer mentors. This highlights a lack of understanding about the positive results in school communities where an effective youth mentoring program is running and the need to educate Union staff.
  • Some school-based programs do not always receive positive support from Senior Management personnel. Alternatively, a new Principal might not be as supportive about a youth mentoring program as their predecessor. As there are many decision-makers within the school system, it can take quite a while to set up a program, which again takes up an inordinate amount of program staff time.
  • The insufficient training of mentors was a problem mentioned by a number of program staff. There is a perception that potential mentors won’t commit to a longer, more thorough training program, which has definitely not been my experience during the past twenty years during which time I have trained approximately 1000 volunteer adult mentors. One mentor I spoke to in the USA felt that the short training his group had received made it difficult for mentors to bond as a group. This then places more pressure on program staff once matches are made.
  • The lack of ongoing training of mentors seems to be a common issue amongst most mentoring programs. The shortage of program staff and the fact that many program staff felt unqualified to run such training tended to be the common factors explaining this state of affairs.
  • An acknowledged shortage of parent involvement in many programs. A number of programs would like to see more parenting programs incorporated into the mentoring experience, as they felt family life would be considerably enhanced with such an intervention.
  • Many programs do not have an effective evaluation process. It is costly and they don’t have the budgets to carry out the depth of evaluation some donors require, yet these same donors are not prepared to provide the financial support for such evaluations. A “Catch 22” situation. Longitudinal evaluations, which are acknowledged as being necessary, are also difficult, as both the Control Group and the mentees can be transient and difficult to track, especially where vulnerable young people from high risk, low socioeconomic environments are concerned. Having insufficient program staff also makes it difficult for some programs to keep track of mentors and mentees when they leave the program.
  • While programs acknowledge the importance of maintaining an up-to-date website, many lack the funds to pay for this and are dependent on volunteers who only have limited time available.
  • There is an ongoing challenge with the recruiting of volunteer adult mentors, especially males. A reason given was that the history of the USA is built on ‘rugged individualism’, thus making it difficult to motivate the concept of community support for projects such as youth mentoring.
  • Many organizations acknowledge the huge need for mentoring adolescents, especially in the 14 – 21 age group, but are reluctant to develop such programs because of the difficulty of mentoring such challenging adolescents, who are deemed to be ‘too hard’. All acknowledge the importance of running mentoring programs for children aged between 7 and 12. Some programs felt that some of the most effective mentoring takes place during the Middle School years, though mentees at this age want to do more than simply ‘have fun’. It is a great opportunity for mentors to move alongside mentees and encourage them to learn how to set achievable goals, learn from their mistakes, start exploring career interests, develop more creative, innovative and entrepreneurial skills or develop skills to resolve conflicts in a positive way in a safe, non-threatening, non-judgmental, empathetic way. Again this highlighted the need for more effective training of mentors.
  • Programs that are dependent on Federal [Government] Grants might not be sustainable unless they embark on new fund raising ventures. Depending on government grants was regarded as unhealthy by some programs, which had been operating for more than five years. One organization refuses to apply for Federal Grants and believes that seed funding for a program should be in place before any program begins and before Federal Government is approached.
  • The quality of foster care and the way young people are labelled and treated in foster care was a cause for concern in most of the areas I visited. This appears to be a global problem. Social Workers appear to be treated with disdain for a number of reasons, the two most common being high case loads resulting in overworked staff, and, secondly, Social Workers, who lack the passion to encourage young people to reach their potential, being given young people on their case loads. These factors led to problematic relationships between young people and their Social Workers, possibly contributing to more antisocial behavior tendencies amongst young people, particularly those in the foster care system or those in single parent homes that were not functioning too well. Some staff also expressed concern that some of these young people were being diagnosed with non-existent mental health problems.
  • In some programs there were long waiting lists of mentees, but limited funding and a shortage of mentors made it impossible for programs to increase their number of mentor/mentee matches. Sadly, many of the young people on the waiting lists risk becoming juvenile delinquents, especially those living in difficult family circumstances, as they were seen as facing enormous challenges.
  • Some programs had no probationary periods for the mentor to connect with the mentee eg, six to eight weeks meeting on a weekly basis, and, if the relationship was not working, either party could withdraw from the match in a positive way. The lack of an Exit interview for mentors and mentees at the formal conclusion of the match in some programs was a surprise.

(Source: Adapted from The Winston Churchill Report, September 2006: Promoting the Spirit of Mentoring in New Zealand. Author: Robin Cox – updated, 2021)