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Learn how to establish criteria for participation and encourage youth to participate.


  • What do we mean by recruiting youth?

  • Whom should you recruit?

  • Where should you recruit?

  • How do you recruit youth?

What do we mean by recruiting youth?

Every day, we read about children and teenagers who succumb to drugs or violence, or who drift aimlessly through life without motivation or direction. However, many of those same youth, even those in desperate circumstances, would like to become involved in programs and projects that will have a positive impact on their communities and their lives.

A mentoring program is an excellent way to guide these children and teenagers to lead productive, healthy, and safe lives. But participation in a mentoring program, like anything else, may not be for everyone. Developing a solid recruitment strategy will help your organization identify and approach the children who will benefit most from your program.

To recruit youth is to go out and actively seek out young people to participate in your mentoring program. It is to create strategies to attract youth to your program, and always keep old recruits active at the same time. Recruiting youth creates an impact in your community by giving kids the chance to be productive.

Whom should you recruit?

When it comes time to identify potential protégés for your program, you have to have a pretty good idea of what you want your program to look like. What are you offering? What are you trying to accomplish? Who in the community can benefit the most from a mentoring program like yours? Once you answer these questions, you'll have a good picture of the people you're looking for.

In other words, you must define the purposes of your program. You have to know what you want to accomplish, so that you can start working on it. Once you have a grasp on which type of work you want to do, it's time to decide which group(s) would get the most out of your program.

There are many ways by which you may start looking for participants. Not every youth will fill the appropriate profile to participate in your program. It's important to match participants and activities, so you must be careful in your selection. You may want to recruit youth who need some additional help to thrive in the community. Here are some possible criteria you may wish to consider when beginning to identify potential young participants:

  • The participant has a need to interact with positive adult role models
  • The participant comes from a family that is living in poverty or experiencing severe financial stress
  • The participant lacks particular academic or job skills necessary for self-improvement or greater life options
  • The participant is experiencing failure at school or poor attendance
  • The participant has a physical or mental disability or behavior problems that are not beyond the capabilities of an adult mentor but that may inhibit daily, positive interaction with adults or peers

Of course, more important than all of these criteria is the willingness of the participant to take part in a mentoring program. If the youth doesn't want to participate, or is forced to, the objective of your program probably won't be achieved: It may actually be counterproductive for everyone involved. There are ways of persuading a young person to take part in an activity, but anything that goes beyond persuasion and into coercion must be avoided.

Where should you recruit?

The saying "it's not what you know, but who you know," really is the key to finding your targeted population. To walk around the streets looking for kids probably won't yield the results you want. Use your contacts. If you don't have contacts, start establishing them. Ask around, learn about youths in your community, find out where they hang out, research associations and clubs, go to community outreach centers.

Going to the resources available in your community, you can get extra help in finding youth, and finding other people to help. These people will know other people or groups that may benefit from your program.

A number of organizations are actively involved in mentoring, and may be good places to get youth referrals from your community:

  • Schools
  • Local service organizations
  • State agencies
  • Churches
  • Parents
  • Teachers
  • School counselors
  • Local Big Brothers/Big Sisters agency
  • Family physicians
  • Local YMCA or community center
  • Local PTA chapter
  • Local chamber of commerce
  • School/student organizations and clubs
  • Neighborhood Boys and Girls Clubs
  • Family Therapists
  • Coaches
  • Local health department personnel

Of course, you should keep connected to the network of contacts that you establish. Make sure you always update your referral sources of any changes in referral policy or procedure. Keep people informed about your program, constantly remind them that you're recruiting and they'll keep you in mind when there's a recruiting opportunity.

How do you recruit youth?

Certainly, you will want to begin recruiting youth for your mentoring program as soon as the program is established. After all, you can't have a youth mentoring program without anyone to mentor!

While recruiting strategies vary, there are some constant elements you should not overlook. They're basic steps that can build the backbone of your recruiting. Feel free to throw your own ideas in and develop a recruiting plan that works for you.

Establish qualifying criteria for participating in your program

As discussed above, you will want to have clean-cut criteria to help you decide who is eligible to participate in your program. Ask yourself:

  • Who are the children in the community who can use our services?
  • What age group will we serve?
  • What kinds of barriers and challenges will these children be facing?
  • What kinds of families will they come from?
  • Are there other criteria we wish to establish?

Following the answers you get from these questions, it will be easier for your target recruits to know if they fit in your program, or if your program fits them.

Create strategies to encourage referrals to your program

The strategies you may use to start recruiting youth to your program vary widely, but referrals from other organizations are a good place to start.

Start with the following list of questions:

  • Who can refer kids to your program? Which adults work with children on a daily basis?
  • How can people refer youth to your program? Is there a formal procedure in place?
  • How will you attract the adults who can refer children to you?
  • What kind of steps will potential protégés have to go through in order to join your program?
  • How will you select protégés, if the demand for mentors exceeds the supply?

Referrals go back to establishing a network, and talking to people in your community. Remember that the more people know about you, hear from you, and see your face, the more likely it'll be for them to refer kids to your program and recommend it to other people.

Make youths want to participate

Greg Frost, coordinator of Health Careers Pathways in Lawrence, Kansas, says that one should plan activities that the youths will want to participate. It doesn't hurt to meet them and ask them what they want. If you provide something of their interest, they will talk to their friends and you'll have more youth wanting to participate in your program.

Police force work to attract participants for mentoring program

The police force in Ontario, Canada, developed a youth mentoring program to create a climate of tolerance and mutual respect between the police and youth. They wanted a cooperative atmosphere, and increase awareness of career opportunities in the police service. At the same time, they encourage youth and adults in various communities to develop an appreciation for policing.

The program in itself was attractive to young people. Who wouldn't want to have a police officer as a mentor? During orientation, the kids were also given a sweatshirt with Police/Youth Mentoring Program written on them. All the protégés were given their mentors voice mail extension numbers, and a work schedule of the days and times when the mentors were working. This way, they felt closer to their mentors.

Most of the activities between the mentor and the protégé were one-on-one, making the whole process more intimate and giving youths more attention. Mentors and the protégés spent significant time together, had a volleyball game between the protégés and the mentors, and a barbecue was held at Lake Ontario.

Overall protégés rated the program as excellent, admitting that their attitude and perceptions toward the police changed to a more positive perception. Some of the youths even felt that they would like to pursue the field of policing. They said that they would strongly recommend the program to their friends. Mentors felt a sense of gratification for being able to be positive role models.

Other ways to attract youths to your program are:

  • Establish a pen pal program - kids will improve writing skills and learn about different backgrounds
  • Offer activities involving sports - young people are usually into sports and matches can be a great way of bonding mentors and protégés
  • Promote artistic activities that can be linked to the community, like making sleeping bags for the homeless, painting neighborhood murals, and organizing serve-a-thons. Kids will learn to be responsible, and have fun.
  • Organize community explorations - they will appeal to the kids' adventurous urge, and they can learn about their community
  • Create an awards program - young people will be more interested in doing good work, and it will build their self-esteem

This last suggestion is especially important once you have your program set up. You can use one of the participants as a recruiting tool. An honoree program can be of great help in this plan. Promote the opportunity and encourage nominations of outstanding young participants. They can be honored at an awards ceremony, and maybe given a certificate or medal.

Once you established these recognition efforts, have an honoree speak to a class in the local school. Let the honoree talk about their experience in your program, how they like it, and why others should join. Sometimes the message is more credible when coming from a peer. In addition to speaking to other students, the honoree can speak about your program at assemblies, through articles in the school newspaper, or at parent group meetings.

Many young people are looking for peers to become involved in a project. If they see others like them, who enjoyed your program and carried on their efforts, they will get excited to participate, too. Besides, you're creating role models. And it's fairly easy to get news coverage for an outstanding student in the community.

Advertise your program

The last step in recruiting youth to your program is to advertise. Does this mean going to your local media station and creating a public service announcement? It can, but there are a number of other ways to advertise as well:

  • Promote your program in schools during morning announcements, at lunchtime or recess, or during school assemblies
  • Provide public service announcements to be broadcast at youth sports events at halftime or during a lull in the action
  • Send flyers home with schoolchildren to alert parents of your program and to inform them of your referral process
  • Offer to give presentations to schools, youth clubs, churches, in the break rooms or boardrooms of local businesses, or to Rotary clubs on what your program is about and how to get children involved
  • Use direct mail to send out brochures promoting your program and informing the community of your work
  • Use your local media sources - newspapers, radio and television stations, cable companies--to increase the visibility of your program
  • Set up a website describing your program. Make sure it contains information for both potential protégés and potential mentors, and be sure to include an on-line from and an e-mail address where people can request further information, volunteer their services, ask to participate, or refer potential protégés.

Make sure you take all the advantage you can from the exposure you'll get from advertising. Be visible and use your publicity well.

Also, it's important to be aware of what is going on around your community. This may help you find the right circumstances to do your recruiting. For instance, a county fair that lots of young people are going to attend may be a perfect opportunity for you to set up an information table.

In Summary

General Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, who also once served as the Chairman of America's Promise Alliance, says that children can be angels or devils, "depending on the kind of nurturing they receive from others. They can grow into responsible and contributing members of society, or they can become its dependents, predators and outcasts. The whole society has a stake in their destiny and a duty to help them grow up strong and confident." Let your mentoring program be a tool to give youths an ongoing relationship with a caring adult, and a healthy start for a healthy future.

Marcelo Vilela
Lorraine Claassen

Online Resources

Recruitment Tips for a Mentoring Program from the University of Minnesota.

The National Mentor Partnership's Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring publication details research-informed and practitioner-approved standards for creating and sustaining quality youth mentoring programs and consequently, impactful mentoring relationships.

How to Build a Successful Mentoring Program Using the Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring is a planning toolkit with tools, templates and advice for implementing the  Elements of Effective Practice for Mentoring publication.

Print Resources

Basualdo-Delmonico, A. M., & Spencer, R. (2016). A parent's place: Parents', mentors' and program staff members' expectations for and experiences of parental involvement in community-based youth mentoring relationships. Children And Youth Services Review, 616-14. doi:10.1016/j.childyouth.2015.11.021

Rhodes, J., Liang, B., & Spencer, R. (2009). First do no harm: Ethical principles for youth mentoring relationships. Professional Psychology: Research And Practice, 40(5), 452-458. doi:10.1037/a0015073

Campus Partners in Learning. (1990). Resource manual for campus-based youth mentoring programs. Providence, RI: Brown University.

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

Furano, K. et al. (1993). Big Brother/Big Sister: A study of program practices. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.

Kanfer, F. (1995). A mentor manual: For adults who work with pregnant and parenting teens. Washington, DC: Child Welfare League of America.

Public/Private Ventures. (1994, Winter). Mentoring in the juvenile justice system. Philadelphia, PA: Macartney, C.A.

Roaf, P.A., et al. (1994). Big Brother / Big Sister: A study of volunteer recruitment and screening. Philadelphia, PA: Public/Private Ventures.