Wednesday, December 30, 2009

How can you tell what kind of program it is?

National Mentoring Month is starting in a few days and there will be many ads and public service announcements showing how mentors have been an important part of someone's life.

Hopefully this will motivate many people to go to the internet and search for programs where they can volunteer time, talent and hopefully dollars. One place they can look is the Chicago Tutor/Mentor Program Locator, which has an interactive, searchable map that enables people to zoom into different sections of the Chicago area to learn what non profits, if any, offer tutoring/mentoring. Another feature is a library of links to more than 200 web sites of youth serving programs, organized by sections of the city and suburbs.

But, how does someone tell the difference between one organization, and another?

I ponder this often, and as I was cleaning my desk today (what a mess!) I found some notes that I had written more than a year ago. Here's what I'd encourage you to look for when searching for places to get involved:

a) does the organization have a web site, blog, or other written material that outlines the vision, mission and strategy of the organization?

b) does the web site include a "theory of change" showing how volunteers in that tutoring and/or mentoring program help youth; and how the overall activities of the organization help youth and volunteers meet regularly, stay connected, and build long-term (more than one year) relationships?

c) does the web site of organization show a "learning strategy" meaning, it points its volunteers, students and donors to other tutor/mentor programs, and resources, that can be used to benchmark, and compare, or to find help that is not available at that specific program location?

d) does the web site include a history of performance, including some statistics showing how many youth and adults have participated on a regular basis each year, and for multiple years. Such a history would show how long the organization has offered tutoring and/or mentoring, and how many years the organization has been continuously connected to youth in the same neighborhood of Chicago, or any other city.

e) If the organization makes claims of "graduation and college attendance rates" do they base this on the number of youth who started with the program, and who are still participating when they graduated? Or do they fudge the numbers as the Kauffman Scholars were accused of doing in the Dec/Jan 2010 issue of Youth Today? By fudging, I mean they do not include kids who dropped out of the program in early years when they report graduation or college attendance rates.

f) does the web site include testimonials/stories of impact from youth and alumni who have been part of the program in the current or former years

g) how does this organization work with others in its zip code, city or state to share ideas, build capacity, and assure that more kids have access to great programs, not just the kids in that program?

h) does the organization post financial reports, such as audits or 990 reports, on its web site?

While the Tutor/Mentor Connection maintains a directory of Chicago area volunteer-based tutoring and/or mentoring programs, and a links library, we don't have the manpower to be doing an ongoing review of each program to determine which meet these criteria. Our goal is to educate consumers (volunteers, parents, donors, program leaders, etc.) so they can compare one program to another, with a goal that all programs are constantly trying to be the best at what they do. This is because each program serves different kids in a different part of the city.

They all need to be as good as they can be.

Many organizations will not demonstrate everything I've listed. There may be other criteria that some people might want to add to this list. My point is, no program can reach this level of excellence, and stay there, without continuous investment of time, talent and flexible operating dollars, from people and partners, who get involved, and stay involved, for many years.

If you are looking to get involved, think beyond being a tutor or mentor. Inventory your talent, resources and networks, and look for ways that you can help one or more tutoring/mentoring programs on our Chicago Programs list, or in your own community, become the best at what they do, and the model everyone else is trying to duplicate.

We created a forum on our Ning Site where you can post reviews of programs, and discuss what it takes to help a program move from being good, to being great.

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