There’s a mentorship gap in Canada. Here’s how — and why — to close it.

Leaders in the social impact world need to step up to become mentors, and funders need to help build up mentorship programs’ capacity, according to new MENTOR Canada research

Why It Matters

Young people who are mentored are 53 percent more likely to report good mental health, and more than twice as likely to report a strong sense of belonging in their community. At a time when youths’ mental wellbeing and career prospects are limited by the pandemic, an equitable recovery requires a stronger culture of mentorship across the country.

This story is in partnership with MENTOR Canada.

More than 15,000 young people across Canada want a mentor but can’t find one. 

That was a major finding from research on Canada’s mentorship landscape we recently released at MENTOR Canada. And, still, that figure doesn’t account for the tens of thousands of young people who have missed out on mentoring through community involvement, sports teams, extra-curricular activities, co-op programs and job placements because of COVID-19. The pandemic has fractured young people’s connection to informal mentors, many of whom are teachers and coaches, and disrupted their access to formal mentors, since programs suspended their operations or shifted to virtual settings. 

If the social sector is going to help youth recover from the pandemic, we need to close the mentorship gap and expand Canada’s mentoring capacity. Building back better must include a mentoring mindset. This will require a bold shift in how we think about mentors and mentoring. All sectors — including the social impact world — needs to establish a culture of mentoring in our communities and workplaces that understands mentoring as a continuum of relationships — where everyone sees themselves as potential mentors, and mentoring isn’t limited to the confines of a location, program, demographic or workplace. At the same time, mentorship programs that do exist across the country need far more funding from the philanthropic and social finance sectors in order to expand and close the gap between those who want mentors and the number of mentors available.  

Policy makers, experts, service providers and young people all acknowledge the importance and value of mentoring for youth. In 13 Ways to Modernize Youth Employment in Canada, a 2017 report released by Employment and Social Development Canada (ESDC), the expert panel on youth employment clearly articulated that mentoring was a priority for youth. 

In the social sector, the same was said during the 2018 Canada Service Corps (CSC) consultations, where youth highlighted that mentoring takes place formally and informally, through family, friends, elders and educators. Youth said having someone to help create a supportive space or to challenge their ideas to help foster growth was invaluable. They confirmed that mentoring offers support and guidance to youth during their service journey, and that the same can be said for youth moving through the education system into the workforce. 

And on a personal level, we know mentoring works. Many of us had informal mentors, caring adults who supported us in our lives or careers. They include teachers, coaches, Elders and people in our communities. Some of us were also fortunate to have formal mentors, through youth mentoring programs, or through academic, workplace or career mentoring. Some of us still benefit from the mentors in our lives, or are paying it forward to others.

Yet, too often the formation of mentoring relationships is left to chance. Some children and youth can count on a number of adults or older peers to support and guide them on their journeys towards adulthood — but others can’t. This mentoring gap has negative consequences, not only for children and youth, but also for their communities and for our society. These programs generally aim to overturn at least some of the negative impacts of a lack of social connections and caring relationships — like increased health disparities and risky behaviour, and a growing wealth gap being made worse by the “K shaped recovery”.

For the first time in Canada, MENTOR Canada — a coalition of organizations that provide youth mentoring — has launched three national studies to support the impact of mentoring on young peoples’ lives. In early 2020, MENTOR Canada led three pan-Canadian research projects to understand the experiences and impact of mentoring on youth, on mentoring service providers to better understand their challenges, and on Canadian’s opinions on youth mentoring as well as their willingness to mentor youth outside of their family. Almost three thousand young adults responded. 

According to our research, young people who were mentored were 53 percent more likely than non-mentored peers to report good self-rated mental health and more than twice as likely to report a strong sense of belonging to their local community

Mentoring also yields dividends when it comes to education and employment. Young adults who were mentored were 59 percent more likely to be employed or studying. They were more than twice as likely to have completed high school and almost twice as likely to have pursued some further education after high school.

The demand for mentoring programs is strong. In fact, demand outpaces many organizations’ capacity to serve youth. More than half of the organizations that participated in our research indicated that they had children and youth waiting for a mentor. Recruiting mentors, especially male-identified mentors, was the most important or second most important program delivery challenge for half of all participating organizations.

Our findings also indicate that a majority of organizations in the youth mentoring sector serve a small number of youth. The relatively small scale of many programs and the strong demand for mentoring raises some concerns about organizations’ ability to offer high-quality programs without increased support and investments. A large number of programs of all sizes reported facing growth and scaling challenges, fundraising challenges, and sustainability challenges. 

Our findings corroborate recent efforts in the mentoring field to re-conceptualize how we define the “mentoring gap”: from having access to one mentor at one point to having access to multiple and evolving supportive and caring relationships – mentoring and otherwise – throughout childhood and adolescence. Giving each young person a single mentor will not close the mentoring gap. Instead, to close the gap, we need to ensure that every young person who wishes to have a mentor, or mentors, is able to access the right mentors capable of responding to their unique goals and needs at the right time in their lives. 

But ultimately, to close the mentoring gap, more adults will need to step up and mentor young people, both formally and informally. Fifty-four percent of young adults who participated in our Mapping the Gap study recalled at least one time growing up when they wished they had a mentor but did not have one. The service providers who participated in our Capturing the Landscape study reinforced this need for more mentors: mentor recruitment was by far the most common challenge programs faced and more than half of participating organizations reported that they had young people waiting for a mentor.

We also need increased program funding for mentoring for youth serving organizations so that youth who need formal mentoring get it. We need an expansion of corporate and workplace mentoring programs that recognize the importance of mentoring, and training and peer support around diversity, equity and inclusion. As social impact leaders, we need to integrate a mentoring expectation into our work.

Children and youth’s access to supportive relationships, including mentoring relationships, cannot be left to chance. This generation of youth is facing a crisis from which some may never recover. But quick action now can make a big difference. We need caring adults to step up to the plate, share their lived experience and mentor our young people. And we need all institutions in our society to invest time and resources in mentoring programs and services for the most vulnerable young people. Now is the time to make real investments in helping our young people succeed. Together, we can build a mentoring mindset and close the mentoring gap.