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Learn how to recruit good mentors for your mentoring program.


  • What is recruiting?

  • Why do you need to recruit?

  • What makes a good mentor?

  • How do you decide what qualities you're looking for in a mentor?

  • How do you attract potential mentors?

  • How do you choose good mentors?

  • Tips for conducting an interview

The success of any community-based program depends on the dedication, motivation, and ability of the people who participate or volunteer. Nowhere are these attributes more important than in a mentoring program, where adult role models can enormously influence children's lives. If you're setting up such a program, you'll want to have a system in place that will allow you to attract the people who are most likely to make your program a success. This section of the Tool Box will tell you how.

What is recruiting?

Recruiting is the process by which you find people to join or participate in your organization. Recruiting for a program or organization brings people together who share a common goal. For a mentoring program, this means gathering people together who want to make a difference in a young person's life.

Why do you need to recruit?

Simply put, you'll need to recruit in order to ensure that your supply of mentors meets the demand. For example, if one of your mentors gets sick and must leave the organization, who will take her place? Also, as word of your program spreads, the demand for mentors will probably grow quickly. You'll need a reliable supply of mentors to serve the young people you want to reach.

Anyway, how else are you going to find skilled, motivated people to join your program than by going out and looking for them?

What makes a good mentor?

The truth is, a lot of people can be good mentors. There's not a certain mold that mentors need to come from. Underneath that work shirt, business suit, or lab coat, there might be a role model just waiting to jump out! Mentoring doesn't discriminate, either; people of any ethnic background can make good mentors, and an adult doesn't need to have a lot of money to make a difference in a young person's life.

Before we talk any more about mentoring, let's examine the people who have made a difference in our lives. Think back to your own role models.

Think back to your childhood and teenage years. Who did you most want to be like when you grew up? Most of us remember someone who was famous, or really smart or kind, whom we admired and copied. Most of us have role models about whom we say, "That's who I want to be like."

Running a youth mentor program is similar to finding surrogate older siblings or parents for children who need more of the one-on-one attention and instruction that is often scarce in young people's lives. When you think about your own role models, you can rediscover the qualities your heroes have and find similar values among them. Many of these values will influence how you set up a mentoring program and the kind of people you choose as mentors.

Who were your heroes?

  • Who did you admire when you were in grade school? In junior high? In high school? Why?
  • Who did you want to be when you grew up?
  • What did you want to do when you grew up? Why?
  • How did your role models change through the years? How did your dreams of who you wanted to be change as you grew older?
  • What goals did you set for yourself in grade school? In junior high? In high school?
  • What kinds of things were important to you in childhood?
  • Who do you think are good candidates for role models now? Why?
  • What did you like about your friends when you were growing up?
  • What do you really like about your close friends now?
  • If you already have kids or if you want to have kids, what kinds of values do (or would) you teach them? What kind of adults do (or would) you like them to become?

Now that you've had a chance to reflect on the qualities that attracted you to your own heroes, it's time to decide which of those characteristics or values fit in with what you want your program to provide, who your target audience is, and what type of mentor they want. That means you must be able to define what sort of mentors you're looking for and set up some criteria for who makes a good mentor.

How do you decide what qualities you're looking for in a mentor?

What do your experiences tell you about what kinds of people make good mentors? One way to create a list of characteristics desirable for potential mentors is to brainstorm your own ideas about mentors and combine them with what fits your audience's needs.

The group will probably want to find answers to all of the following questions:

  • What will the mentor be doing?
  • For how long do we want him/her to commit to reach these goals?
  • What qualities and qualifications would be ideal in a mentor?

What will the mentor be doing?

First, think about what mentors might be doing with the people they have been partnered with. Following is a general list of things an adult might do as a mentor. Which of them apply to your program? What else might the adults do?

  • Mentors help their protégés with homework
  • They teach skills or specialized tasks, such as car mechanics or computer programming
  • Mentors help youth set goals
  • Mentors can give their protégés entry to collegiate, professional, or personal events
  • Adult mentors can show teenagers how to hook up with people who have the resources or know-how to help
  • By passing on such valuable skills as communication and goal attainment, mentors teach youth how to help themselves
  • Mentors can teach protégés a foreign language, cooking or just about anything!

The list above gives you a good idea of the types of things a mentor can do, but what happens in a mentoring relationship ultimately depends on how well a mentor and mentee interact. This, in turn, depends largely on how qualified your mentors are to deal with and help youth.

For how long do we want him/her to commit to reach these goals?

Some things to keep in mind as you think about the length of commitment you are asking for:

  • A mentor's duties will vary from program to program and from mentee to mentee
  • A mentor's responsibilities could change with a youth's changing abilities and goals
  • The point of mentoring is to break down barriers, build relationships, and create opportunities for young people

Because of this, your group will also want to decide how long you want your mentors to commit to your program. For many programs, a commitment of six months or a year is asked for, in order that there is enough time to build a strong relationship. For others, the commitment may only be a few weeks or months as necessary skills are transferred. What makes most sense for your organization?

What qualities and qualifications would be ideal in a mentor?

Below are some suggestions for things to consider in potential mentors:

  • Employment history
  • Communication skills
  • Life experience
  • Tolerance for children
  • Parenting skills
  • Experience working with a variety of people
  • Age/maturity
  • Educational background
  • Commitment to community
  • Openness to diversity
  • Family relationships
  • Life ambitions

Of course, be aware that all of your values may not fit in with what your clients need, want, or think is important. What you perceive as important qualities to have may not match perfectly with all the possible values that potential mentors could have.

That's one reason why after having answered these questions within the group, you will probably want to hear the ideas of your clients--the protégés--as well. Two excellent ways to do so are focus groups and concerns surveys.

Make sure you separate out any of your personal biases or prejudices that may affect the quality of your program before you start recruiting. Remember, the mentor program is for the youth in your community, not for you!!

How do you attract potential mentors?

Sometimes you have to go to people, if people won't come to you. The folks who are fantastic at volunteering their time are rare; and most people have so many other daily commitments that volunteering seems impossible. How do you find adults who, when asked, would be glad to help out? Mainly, this can take place through effective advertising.

Some excellent ways to get your organization's name out on the street:

  • Hold a one-hour informational meeting that explains what your program does
  • Post flyers in schools and youth clubs and ask teachers and youth leaders to spread the word
  • Inform parents by telephone, newsletter, or face-to-face contact, of your program
  • Invite your friends to become mentors
  • Ask your friends to ask their friends to become mentors
  • Ask community leaders to suggest individuals who would make good mentors
  • Ask business leaders to introduce you to individuals who show initiative and leadership on the job
  • Place ads in the local and school papers to inform the public about your mentoring program

How do you choose good mentors?

Once the word gets around that your organization is starting a mentor program, crowds of people will hopefully come knocking down your door, asking how they can become mentors. What will you tell them--just sign on the dotted line? No, now is the time to hand out applications.

The application process

The application process is crucial to the success of your mentoring program. If you don't have individuals who are capable of providing quality mentoring, the adolescents you want to serve aren't going to reach their goals. What's more, bad publicity--the kind that comes from dissatisfied adolescents and parents--could mean the end of your partnership program.

So, how can you avoid these problems? A thorough application process ensures that you've done your best to recruit good people into your program. Here's a list of several screening tools you can use. Which ones seem appropriate for your program?

  • Application - a printed form that asks about work history, educational background, and reasons for wanting to become a mentor. Most applications are one to three pages long, and may include some of the other tools on this list.
  • Interview - an interview may demonstrate an applicant's capacity to handle stress, as well as his or her communication skills. It gives you an on-the-spot, live impression of a potential mentor.
  • References - references are letters written by past employers, professors, or other individuals familiar with an applicant's abilities.
  • Background check - a formal investigation into a person's legal past. Examples include an FBI report, National Child Abuse Registry report, and the Division of Motor Vehicles report. A formal background check on anyone that works that works with children and youth is mandatory in many U.S. states and in several other countries as well. For reasons of both security and liability, any mentoring program should require such checks for all potential mentors.
  • Short answer questions - these questions gather factual information about an applicant's personal goals, experiences, and expectations for the program.
  • Personal history - a one-page essay that provides a more personal glance into an applicant's life. A personal history can be self-directed or in response to a particular question.
  • Grade point average - some people consider G.P.A. a good indicator of a person's ability to achieve and commitment to academics.
  • Skills inventory - a written form that asks the applicant to check off her or his skills on an inventory of different capacities.
  • Home visit - serves the same purpose as the personal interview, but gives you the added perspective of how a potential mentor behaves around her or his family. By looking at the mentor's home environment, shows you what kind of person an adolescent match will be exposed to.

The application process doesn't allow you to predict how a person will behave all the time in a mentoring relationship. Nonetheless, it can give you a good sense of what an applicant is like. The methods listed above are particularly effective in screening for the best candidates when used in a combination carefully tailored to suit your organization's purposes. At the end of this section is the screening procedure that Big Brothers/Big Sisters of Douglas County, Kansas, uses in order to get the best possible mentors and best possible matches.

It can seem overwhelming to require potential mentors and your staff members to fill out and review so many different forms. However, your mentors will be working with a vulnerable population, so it's imperative that you find those people most qualified to work with youth. One way to keep information on potential mentors straight is to keep a checklist of forms they need to fill out, meetings or interviews they need to attend, and background and reference checks that you need to complete during the screening process.

A few of the screening tools deserve additional comment:

Letters of reference

Letters of reference are usually written by someone who has known a potential mentor for several years, either in a work setting or on a personal level. You can ask for a general letter of recommendation, or your organization may choose to control the content of applicant's references by using forms that prompt a referring party to address an applicant's qualifications in certain areas of expertise. In either form, these recommendations can give you an accurate picture of an applicant's personality, competence, and dedication.

  • Double-check, by phone call or by an in-person contact, the source of any references you receive. This way you can confirm the accuracy and credibility of the person doing the referring.
  • Beware of references written by an applicant's close friend or family member. These letters obviously will contain a degree of personal bias.
  • Make sure the reference talks about the applicant in relation to the abilities you're looking for in potential mentors. If it doesn't, throw the reference out and ask for another.

Personal history

Personal histories should draw out the more private side of an applicant. You can find clues into an applicant's personality and values by reading between the lines. Personal histories can be written free form, that is, as a biography, or in response to specific questions.

Skills inventory

A skills inventory gives you a quick run-down of the practical experiences a potential mentor has had. This may or may not include an applicant's current profession.

Tips for conducting an interview

Interviews are stressful situations for interviewers and interviewees alike. Here are some ideas for when you conduct an interview that will make the experience run as smoothly and comfortably as possible.

  • If the interviewee has filled out an application for your organization, make sure that the interviewers are familiar with the applicant's background
  • Before you go into an interview, make sure you have written out the questions that you want the applicant to answer. One way to ensure that your questions are complete and will get at the needed information is to practice on someone. This lets you think of follow-up questions that will help you clarify an applicant's answers.
  • When an applicant arrives, greet him or her with a smile and handshake and (re)introduce yourself
  • Make sure the applicant has a comfortable chair to sit in, and that the climate of the room is appropriate
  • Look the interviewee in the eye when addressing or listening to him or her
  • Pay attention to the applicant's body language, posture, eye contact, ability to communicate, and level of confidence during the interview. Also listen for gaps in information to be followed up later.
  • Let the applicant finish her or his sentences before giving comments or asking for clarification
  • Ask open-ended questions that begin with "what," "when," "how," "why," or "which" in order to give the applicant a chance to provide complete information. This will also give you an idea about how well the interviewee communicates.
  • Make sure the applicant has a clear idea of what your organization expects from her or him
  • Encourage the interviewee to ask questions about your program
  • At the end of the interview, thank the applicant for her or his time. Offer again to answer the interviewee's questions if she or he thinks of more later on.
  • Double-check what's next in the application process with your interviewee and let her or him know if you're missing an necessary information

In Summary

Recruiting mentors is one of the first steps of an effective mentoring program. A well-managed effort ensures that your program will find, attract, and choose many of the people in your community best suited to a mentoring program.

Lorraine Claassen

Print Resources

Freedman, M. (1993). The kindness of strangers: Adult mentors, urban youth, and the new volunteerism. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Lawrie, J. (1987). How to establish a mentoring program. Training and Development Journal. 41(3), 25-27.