Ten Best Practices
by Amy L. Sherman
1. Structured mentoring programs tend to be more successful than unstructured programs. Mentoring relationships that are nebulous and unfocused can cause unease for both the mentors and mentees because neither knows what they are supposed to be doing together. A structured relationship: (a) builds in greater accountability; (b) indicates that the mentee is serious about gaining independence from welfare and will be more highly motivated to mentor; (c) provides definition to the mentor-mentee relationship — i.e., a directed, purposeful friendship aiming toward specific goals; (d) is more volunteer-friendly because the mentor is less likely to be overwhelmed by feeling he has to do everything for the mentee; and (e) gives the relationship something concrete around which to form and grow, especially in the awkward initial stage.
2. Accurate diagnosis is critical. What are the root causes of the recipient’s financial challenges? Mentees who cannot manage money well will continue to face difficulties even if the mentoring program helps them find better paying employment. Similarly, job placement will not help people who lack the basic job readiness necessary for retaining employment. A program that offers terrific personal support and counseling but neglects basic obstacles like day care and transportation may also prove insufficient. Effective programs make an accurate diagnosis of the principal reasons why a family is in need and then tailors assistance accordingly.
3. Mentors and mentees need to sign a covenant at the beginning of their working relationship. The covenant outlines the commitment each is making to the other and clearly defines the roles and expectations of each. The mentees need to understand what they can, and cannot, ask of the mentors. The mentors need to know what they are committing themselves to do, and then be faithful to do it. Clearly spell out what role, if any, financial benevolence will play in the mentoring program.
4. A personal action plan will help guide the mentoring process. An action plan is a strategy document designed by the mentees and their mentors that outlines goals and steps for accomplishing those goals. The action plan includes a timeline and deadlines for accomplishing various goals. Regular, structured, face-to-face contact is essential to maintaining the action plan.
5. Effective mentoring almost always involves time-intensive, personalized help. Be straightforward with volunteers that this ministry is going to take time. Utilize mentor teams rather than a one-on-one model. This precludes volunteer burnout and allows mentors to work in pairs. Put someone who has daytime availability — such as a homemaker, a retired person, or a self-employed person with a flexible schedule — on every mentor team. Typically mentoring will involve helping the mentee with personal business matters — such as dealing with the IRS, DMV, or other governmental agencies — that can only be attended during weekday business hours.
6. Mentors must be willing to pry a little, and mentees must be willing to build a transparent relationship with their mentors. This is one of the most difficult parts of the mentoring relationship. But asking tough questions, holding people accountable, and getting the participant to talk straight are all necessary. Tough love is often necessary.
7. A 6-month minimum relationship is needed. The first 30 to 90 days are typically spent in a crisis management phase, focusing on the participant’s most immediate obstacles to self-sufficiency (e.g., finding day care, clearing up back bills, reestablishing telephone service, obtaining car repairs, etc.). As friendship with the volunteers grows deeper, the participants tend to open up more. This may mean that the mentor team may not even learn of some significant problems until 4 to 5 months into the relationship.
8. Pre-exit interviews can help guide participants in making the transition out of the mentoring program. At these sessions, about 2 months before the end of the formal program, mentors and mentees review the progress they have made together and assess what remains to be done to help meet the goals identified in the action plan. This can help focus the remaining time. It can also encourage mentors to stay involved with the participant beyond the formal program if they see there remains more they can do to assist the participant.
9. Make sure the sponsoring entity carries an insurance policy that provides liability protection for volunteer mentors, including coverage for an at-fault car accident involving the volunteer’s automobile. This will increase the volunteers’ comfort level in providing transportation help to mentees.
10. Intentionally support mentors. The church must train, encourage, pray for, and appreciate mentors. Training needs to cover, at a minimum: relating cross-culturally; developing active listening, goal-setting, and problem-solving skills; assessing the program participant’s needs and assets; learning how to set appropriate boundaries; understanding typical participant problems; and learning how to present your faith winsomely and appropriately. It may be helpful to facilitate gatherings of volunteer teams to swap stories, compare experiences, problem-solve, and pray for each other.
Adapted from Amy Sherman, “Top Ten Lessons Learned in Welfare-to-Work Mentoring Ministries,” The ABCs of Community Ministry: A Curriculum for Congregations (Hudson Institute, 2001), 82–84.