Youth initiated mentoring (YIM) is a relatively recent innovation in the field of youth mentoring in which young people select and recruit mentors from within their existing communities and social network. The young people are then matched with their selected mentor in a formal mentoring model. The screening and training of the prospective mentor is supervised, facilitated, monitored, and supported by mentoring programs utilising best practices. There has however, been little research into YIM but there are several considerations and possible practices that program coordinators can keep in mind as they think about whether YIM applies to their program and whether this is an idea worth integrating.
Five key strengths of the YIM model are:
- Stronger program retention:Relationships less likely to fail because of the nature of the pre-existing relationship
- Greater durability of relationships:Relationships more likely to endure longer than 12 months
- Greater access to community assets:YIM mentors live and/or work in the young person’s community, helping to make important connections
- Stronger outcomes:strong emotional bonds between the mentor and mentor create an essential precursor to strong behavioral outcomes
- Greater program efficiency:Recruitment costs decrease since the young person recruits their own mentor
There is an impulse to see YIM as a way of relieving the pressure on program staff to recruit competent and committed volunteer mentors a ⎯the one task that can be most time-consuming for mentoring programs – and also as a way to reduce the dread waiting list. However programs coordinators should note that YIM still requires a significant outlay of staff time, just in different ways than traditional volunteer recruitment:
- Programs must teach young peoplewho would serve as an appropriate mentor to them, as well as skills around asking an adult to take on this role. Teaching mentees to nominate their own appropriate mentors may be just as time consuming as general volunteer recruitment.
- In most YIM models, staff still must screen and trainany mentors identified by youth. This may prove more challenging than training staff-recruited mentors as programs have less control over the types of individuals young people nominate.
- Programs should also be prepared to do traditional recruitment for those young people who struggle to identify or nominate an appropriate mentor who is willing to take on the role. Related to this, programs must take care to ensure that practices are in place to help mentees navigate the disappointment and possible feelings of rejection that they may experience when their nominated mentors do not agree to take on this role.
- And post-match, programs should still anticipate some level of follow-up or match support, particularly in cases where outcomes are being tracked closely. YIM removes some level of control from programs over the relationships that they are, in theory, fostering to achieve an outcome. So programs may want to question whether YIM is the easy solution to the burden of mentor recruitment that it is often held out to be.
Those are all tasks that a younger child might struggle with and it’s no surprise that most applications of YIM in the field to date have been with youth transitioning into young adulthood (with the accompanying career and educational challenges ahead) or youth transitioning out of a continuum of care where they find themselves needing to take the lead role in procuring the support they need to move forward. So at the most basic level, YIM may be best viewed as a strategy more appropriate for use with older adolescents or young adults who have the capacity to take an active role in seeking and maintaining supportive relationships. (Alternatively, it stands to reason that there may be value in teaching youth of all ages the value in, and skills for, seeking out supportive relationships throughout their lives.)
This all being said, YIM has considerable appeal and promise for the mentoring movement.
Additionally, it seems likely that there is much to be gained by teaching young people how to identify the areas of life in which they could benefit from some additional support and by encouraging them, and building their skills, to seek out deeper connections with adults who can help them in these areas. In fact, there may be few gifts a program can give young mentees more than teaching them how to find mentors throughout their lives, long after they have left their program’s doors. If only all youth had the opportunities and skills to find the mentoring they need. But therein lies the conundrum for the mentoring field, which exists almost entirely because these relationships are something that young people struggle to find or facilitate on their own. But for those older mentees who are ready to take a leading role in securing the support they need from caring adults, YIM is an appealing idea and initial evidence of promise. Hopefully the coming years will produce more research that clarifies both the effectiveness and viability of YIM across different applications, thus laying the foundation for evidence-based scaling up throughout the mentoring field.