May 24, 2017

How to build community through mentorship

The D.C. nonprofit MentorPrize connects potential mentors with opportunities in their communities

The author was inspired by Nichole Land's story. Pictured here, Land with her mentor Steve Hull. Photo courtesy of MentorPrize

My work to advance mentorship as a community-building tool began about two years ago when I heard a young woman tell a story that reinforced my faith in the power of one-on-one connections.

At a charity event in Maryland, Nichole Land spoke about growing up the second oldest of nine children. Her siblings had run-ins with the law. Her clothes were donated, her school lunches subsidized, and her 12-person family lived crammed into a two-bedroom apartment. Nichole detailed her many challenges in a measured tone. But she choked up when she spoke of one person: her mentor, a man she credited for steering her through dark moments so she could gain a college degree, a stable job, and an apartment of her own.

When the presentation ended, I introduced myself to Nichole just to tell her how much I admired her grit and perseverance. Little did I know that this casual chat with her and her mentor, Steve Hull, would lead me to create MentorPrize, a nonprofit organization. I now work with a very hands-on board of directors to recruit mentors and place them in mentoring programs throughout the Washington, D.C., region. It was Steve who first mentioned the concept of forming this “mentor corps,” and with his blessing, I took the idea and ran with it. The initiative gained momentum faster than any of us expected.

Since its June 2015 launch, MentorPrize has recruited nearly 300 mentors, almost triple what we projected for this point in our growth cycle. We’ve referred our recruits to 21 “partners”—nonprofit organizations (all vetted by us) that serve mostly at-risk youth and embrace best mentoring practices. One our partners, Generation Hope, told us it gained 15 percent of its mentors last year through MentorPrize. Without us, many of the teen parents this group serves may not have received the support they needed as they worked to earn college degrees.

In our quest to identify mentors for our partners, we speak at corporate gatherings, religious institutions, farmers’ markets and many other venues about our work. And when someone steps forward to volunteer, we make it easy for them. MentorPrize does the heavy lifting by sorting through a range of mentoring opportunities offered by our partners to find one that suits the person’s interests as well as their location and time preferences. This customized approach boosts the chances of a successful mentor-mentee match in a way that conventional volunteer recruitment services, including online databases, cannot.

As our work has evolved, I’ve come to recognize that mentorships are an extremely effective means of building community, empathy and bridges between people—one relationship at a time.

A lawyer by training, I had no experience in nonprofit work when I started MentorPrize, just a strong desire to see other people replicate the type of bond Nichole and Steve share. I pushed aside all self-doubt and embarked on a journey that has heightened my appreciation of the kindness and resilience of so many people in our community. As our work has evolved, I’ve come to recognize that mentorships are an extremely effective means of building community, empathy and bridges between people—one relationship at a time. I’ve seen the anecdotal results and the research to back that up.

A study funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation found that quality mentoring relationships help at-risk youth battle depression, gain social acceptance, and improve their grades. In several surveys, mentors say their morale, communication skills and even their health improved when they worked with a mentee. It’s no wonder that many communities have turned to mentorship as a tool for solving seemingly intractable problems. In Chicago, the mayor recently pledged $36 million to a mentoring program for kids in a bid to quell the city’s violence. And of course, President Obama launched My Brother’s Keeper in 2014 to help young men of color reach their potential in large part by pairing them with mentors.

Still, research shows that most mentoring programs lack the time or resources to invest in seeking mentors. That’s certainly true of the Washington area, where 65 percent of local mentoring programs report that recruiting mentors is a top challenge for them, according to a survey by Deloitte and United Way of the National Capital Area. MentorPrize works hard to fill that void. We recruit mentors at no cost to the mentor, the mentee or our partners. Instead, we rely on our sponsors, donors and the dues paid by our growing board of directors. We’re now working aggressively on fundraising and grant proposals so we can continue to serve the people who have come to rely on us.

At MentorPrize, we believe that quality mentoring relationships offer many rewards to all who take part in them, and by extension, to society as a whole. Many of us are truly philanthropic—we donate money, organize benefits, give food to the homeless, and so much more. But mentoring is different. When you mentor someone, you take their story home with you. Their story becomes part of your story. It changes the lens in which you view the world, and it changes you.

Leslie Adelman


Leslie Adelman is the president and co-founder of MentorPrize.