Harvard Mentoring Project

In 1997, the Center for Health Communication of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health launched a national media campaign to promote the growth of the mentoring movement with the goal of linking large numbers of young people with adult mentors. All the major broadcast television networks are participating, along with 45 national and regional cable networks and leading Hollywood studios. The campaign has included an East Room event in the White House and the involvement of General Colin Powell and Quincy Jones as spokespersons. The Harvard Mentoring Project is supported by grants from The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The MCJ Foundation.

“Make a Difference”

Harvard undertook this initiative because studies have shown that mentoring is a highly effective strategy for preventing several key problems that young people face, including school violence, drug abuse, and school drop out. Mentoring provides information, opportunities, nurturance, and support. By successfully navigating a relationship with a mentor, a young person develops a shared sense of caring, respect, trust, and, consequently, the belief that “I can.” This positive attitude, or self-efficacy, makes a fundamental difference when it is applied to specific goals (such as school or career) or to the young person’s emotional development.

In a landmark study conducted by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV), 1000 young people on the waiting list of Big Brothers Big Sisters of America were randomly assigned to two groups. Members of one group were assigned a mentor; members of the other group remained on the waiting list. Comparing the two groups 18 months later, the children with mentors were: 46% less likely to begin using illegal drugs; 27% less likely to begin using alcohol; 53% less likely to skip school; and 33% less likely to engage in violence. P/PV also found that young people with mentors: felt more competent about their ability to do well in school; reported more positive relationships with friends and parents; had better attitudes toward school and the future; and had better attitudes toward their family and communities.

The challenge is to take mentoring to scale. It is estimated that almost 16 million young people could benefit from a mentoring relationship, but only 500,000-750,000 are currently served.

Over the past four years, the Harvard Mentoring Project has spearheaded a national media campaign to promote the growth of mentoring in collaboration with leading communication companies: ABC, CBS, Fox, HBO, NBC, UPN, and WB; 45 national and regional cable networks; major Hollywood studios; the National Association of Broadcasters; the National Cable Television Association; Viacom Outdoor/TDI; and local television stations in key markets.

National nonprofit partners in the initiative include: America’s Promise-The Alliance for Youth, The Advertising Council, Big Brothers Big Sisters of America, Communities In Schools, Mentoring USA, National Mentoring Partnership, The Partnership for a Drug-Free America, The Points of Light Foundation, Save the Children, and United Way. In addition, the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the U.S. Department of Justice have made important contributions to the media effort.

The Campaign uses a three-pronged communication strategy consisting of advertising, entertainment programming, and news. The most significant component is advertising, including public service announcements (PSAs) produced by ABC, CBS, Fox, HBO, NBC, The Advertising Council, America’s Promise-The Alliance for Youth, and Save the Children. All the PSAs are tagged with a toll-free telephone number, enabling individuals to call for information on mentoring programs that need volunteers in their own communities.

The Harvard Mentoring Project has encouraged Hollywood producers and writers to depict mentoring relationships in prime-time episodes to reinforce the impact of the PSAs. Entertainment not only mirrors social reality, but also helps shape it by depicting what constitutes popular opinion, by influencing people’s perceptions of the roles and behaviors that are appropriate to members of a culture, and by modeling specific behaviors. Story lines dealing with mentoring have appeared in “Any Day Now” (Lifetime), “Becker” (CBS), “Caroline in the City” (NBC), “Dawson’s Creek” (WB), “ER” (NBC), “Family Matters” (ABC), “High Incident” (ABC), “Judging Amy” (CBS), “Just Shoot Me” (NBC), “King of Queens” (CBS), “News Radio” (NBC), “Providence (NBC), “Sister Sister” (WB), “Spin City” (ABC), “Steve Harvey Show” (WB), “The Corner” (HBO miniseries), and “Veronica’s Closet (NBC). A poster developed by the Project has been displayed on the stage sets of “Becker” (CBS), “Drew Carey” (ABC), “ER” (NBC), “Friends” (NBC), “Judging Amy” (CBS), “Law & Order: Special Victims Unit” (NBC), “Norm” (ABC), and “West Wing” (NBC).

To date, the campaign has received over $150 million in donated television airtime, and has generated more than 700,000 telephone calls from people seeking information on mentoring programs in their own communities. Findings from an informal survey suggest that approximately 20% of callers have become mentors.

The broader impact of $150 million in media exposure for mentoring is reflected in findings from an archival search of The Washington Post. In 1995, the term “mentor” appeared in a headline in The Post only once in the entire year, compared to once per month by 1999. The term even appears with growing frequency in headlines of obituaries (“John Smith, 89, Violinist and Mentor”), reflecting growing public recognition that the role of mentor is highly valued by society. As another indication of heightened public awareness, President George W. Bush included references to the importance of providing young people with mentors in both his Inaugural Address and his Address to a Joint Session of Congress.

National Mentoring Month Spokesperson Michael Michele

In 2002, the Harvard Mentoring Project launched a new effort to institutionalize the nation’s commitment to mentoring for the long-term. With support from the National Mentoring Partnership, other nonprofit partners, and leading communication companies, the Harvard Mentoring Project established the month of January as National Mentoring Month – an annual, concentrated burst of national and local media attention, combined with White House and Congressional involvement and extensive community outreach. National Mentoring Month provides an annual “shot in the arm” for the mentoring movement.