Research has shown that formal mentoring programs for young people, such as Big Brothers Big Sisters, can play a significant role in reducing drug abuse and youth violence as well as boosting academic achievement. Mentors help to build young people’s character and confidence, expand their universe, and navigate a path to success. From a public health perspective, mentoring addresses the needs of a child as a whole rather than via individual initiatives aimed at specific teen challenges such as pregnancy prevention, drug use, and school dropout.
In 1997, encouraged by businessman/philanthropist Raymond Chambers, the Center launched the Harvard Mentoring Project, a national media campaign to recruit volunteer mentors for youth from underprivileged backgrounds. General Colin Powell agreed to serve as the campaign’s lead spokesperson. The New York Times reported:
The ability of the communications industry to persuade Americans to modify their behavior for what are deemed laudable causes is being tested again by an ambitious project to sell the concept of mentoring. It is being brought to you by the same people who successfully sold the concept of the designated driver.
Conducted in collaboration with MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership, other nonprofit partners, and leading media companies, the campaign applied the Center’s three-pronged communication strategy consisting of advertising, entertainment programming, and news coverage. All of the major broadcast television networks participated, along with 45 national and regional cable networks and leading Hollywood studios. The campaign was supported by grants from the MCJ Foundation and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
In addition to its national focus, the campaign included a heavy emphasis on encouraging community-wide planning and coordination among mentoring groups. Designated local nonprofit organizations and governmental agencies were responsible for coordinating local campaign activities.
Starting in 2001, the Harvard Mentoring Project sought to institutionalize, for the long term, the nation’s commitment to providing mentors for young people who are at risk of not leading healthy, productive lives. In collaboration with MENTOR: National Mentoring Partnership, other nonprofit partners, and leading communication companies, the Harvard Mentoring Project established January as National Mentoring Month (NMM) — 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.
Thank Your Mentor Day was launched in 2004 as a highlight of National Mentoring Month to promote three ways for people to honor their mentors: (1) Contact your mentor to express your appreciation; (2) “Pass it on” by becoming a mentor to a young person in your community; and (3) Write a tribute to your mentor for posting on the campaign’s website, WhoMentoredYou.org. The website featured video clips of prominent people discussing important mentors in their own lives, including contributions to the campaign from: Tom Brokaw, Ray Charles, Walter Cronkite, Gwen Ifill, Quincy Jones, Senator John McCain, Edward James Olmos, General Colin Powell, Bill Russell, and Tim Russert. The website also provided access to online greeting cards (eCards) created for the campaign by Hallmark Cards, enabling people to reach out via email to thank mentors who made significant contributions to their own lives.
In a 2005 evaluation report on the Harvard Mentoring Project, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation staff observed, “The campaign leveraged over $200 million in airtime and PSAs as well as dialogue in prime-time entertainment donated by the broadcast networks, Hollywood studios, cable channels and local affiliates. The campaign won the direct support of two [and later three] successive U.S. presidents, helping to establish mentoring as an important national priority.”
When the campaign was launched in 1997, an estimated 300,000 young people in the U.S. were receiving the benefits of a formal mentoring program each year. By 2005, more than 3 million young people were participating each year in structured mentoring programs.
From 2008-2016, President Barack Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama supported the mentoring campaign through speeches and White House events, and also established a mentoring program within the White House in which local urban youth were matched one-on-one with White House staffers.
In January 2011, the nation celebrated the 10th anniversary of NMM. It coincided with the first annual National Summit on Mentoring held at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. First Lady Michelle Obama gave the keynote address, which was followed by a panel discussion with Attorney General Eric Holder, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius.
The National Mentoring Month campaign, and the annual National Mentoring Summit, continue to be held each year, spearheaded by MENTOR.