Bridging the Research to Practice Gap: Spreading What Works With Mentoring

Contrary to popular belief (or at least mine), at least half of youth involved in mentoring programs are being served by grassroots programs, and not the big names that come to mind when you hear the word “mentoring.” Because they are decentralized and dispersed, tracking the quality and caliber of these programs can be a challenge. And yet, when mentoring is done effectively it can have enormous impact on a child’s life. So, how do we honor the wisdom of communities to provide services that are contextually appropriate, while also ensuring that they are undergirded by the evidence about what constitutes effective mentoring?

At this year’s “Scaling in Action”session during the Social Impact Exchange Conference on Scaling Impact, David Shapiro of MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership talked about their work to bridge the gap between research and practice in mentoring, while also supporting efforts to connect more youth with mentors.

No, MENTOR didn’t develop its own mentoring branded model or hire a legion of trained staff mentors to spread into communities across the U.S. In fact, they don’t mentor at all. Instead, they focus on increasing the spread of evidence-based mentoring programs because, as David shared, “scaling quantity without quality is an empty promise.” By developing partnerships with researchers to evaluate the field of mentoring, such as the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts, they have established standards for mentoring based on what works.

Happily, this information isn’t locked up in a database, decipherable only by statisticians. MENTOR is promoting an “evidence of the commons” approach, creating multiple vehicles to make sure the information can be applied by mentoring programs on the ground. Small, grassroots efforts won’t need to spend big money to figure out what works: they can learn from MENTOR.

To help this shift to outcomes “stick,” MENTOR is providing capacity-building support to mentoring programs through 28 partnerships across the country that act as clearinghouses for resources, training and advocacy work for local programs. In doing this, MENTOR recognizes that strong programs require strong and healthy organizations (cue a collective cheer from GEO).

Their commitment to quality and to supporting the field at large has garnered MENTOR allies in the Corporation for National and Community Service and Harvard’s School of Public Health, who partner with MENTOR to co-promote National Mentoring Month, which culminates in an annual National Mentoring Summit. It has enabled them to be a vocal cheerleader for the cause of mentoring broadly and build political will in support of mentoring, through public awareness campaigns and policy recommendations.

Through focusing on building a field of mentoring rather than trying to replicate a specific program, MENTOR is bucking traditional conceptions of “scale.” GEO and four partner organizations (AshokaSocial Impact ExchangeTaproot Foundation and TCC Group) explore this trend in the publication Pathways to Grow Impact, which presents a framework for understanding the different strategies nonprofits are pursuing and the grantmaker practices that support these efforts. As nonprofits think differently about how to grow their impact (and achieve enormous success in the process), I’m reminded of Rip Rapson’s plenary in which he asked us, as grantmakers, to think differently about our roles. Will grantmakers keep up with nonprofits in recognizing and then doing what it takes to grow impact?

Meghan Duffy is the Manager of Special Initiatives at Grantmakers for Effective Organizations.