Are You Reaching the Young People You Intend to Serve?

It is important to identify the target population for your program, so you can 1) ensure that you are reaching the intended population, one that is likely to experience improved outcomes as a result of your program; and 2) tailor the program to serve them well (by recruiting the right types of volunteers, coordinating with other services as needed, and training mentors to understand mentees’ needs, for instance).

An important question to ask is “who needs – and can benefit from – this program?” A study sponsored by the National Mentoring Partnership identified four categories of youth at risk:

  • Very high risk (10 percent of young people) – young people with multiple problem behaviors. For example, youth in this category commit serious offenses (already entered the juvenile justice system), carry guns, drop out of school, use heavy drugs (such as cocaine), have sex without contraception
  • High risk (15 percent) – youth who participate in two or three problem behaviors but at a slightly lower frequency and with less serious consequences. For example, youth in this category engage in heavy drinking, smoking and marijuana use; have frequent unprotected sex, are behind in school, have high truancy, commit minor delinquent offenses, but most likely have not entered the juvenile justice system, yet.
  • Moderate risk (25 percent) – youth who tend to experiment with risky behaviors. Youth in this category engage in one or two high risk behaviors such as experimenting with alcohol, smoking and marijuana (but not hard drugs), have sexual intercourse, commit occasional truancy, commit minor delinquent offenses, but most likely have not entered the juvenile justice system, yet.
  • Low risk (50 percent) – young people who do not commit any serious delinquent acts and occasionally experiment with risky behaviors. For example, youth in this category may have an occasional drink, skip school or cut class once in a while, may be sexually active, but are most likely to use contraception.

The National Mentoring Partnership study concluded that youth most likely to benefit from mentoring relationships fall in the high, moderate, or low risk categories. While youth who engage in risky behaviors benefit most from mentoring, programs that plan to target high risk youth should be prepared to offer other supportive services (Dryfoos, 1998). High risk youth are also challenging to work with and may be better mentored by professional staff than volunteers, in conjunction with other services.

Programs may need to further narrow the target population by factors like age, gender, income level, disability (will your program target youth with special needs?), neighborhood/geographic location, family/household structure (will your program target youth of incarcerated parent(s), single-parent households or in foster care?), race and ethnicity, and academic performance (will your program target dropouts or students with low academic performance?).

What You Should Do

A clearly defined target population is important because it allows the program to tailor its services (e.g., training for mentors) to specific needs and be effective. What programs should do:

  • Make sure application forms include questions that allow the program to assess whether potential mentees fit eligibility criteria.
  • Recruit and prioritize for enrollment mentees who fit within the target population.
  • At the program level, assess the extent to which the program is in fact reaching the young people it intends to serve.
  • If the program is serving a smaller than anticipated percentage of youth who fall within the defined target population, explore potential reasons. Reasons may include lack of awareness or other barriers to participation, and improving outreach strategies may be necessary. It is also possible that community needs have changed, and that your target population is smaller than it used to be, in which case a fresh community needs assessment may be appropriate.
  • If the program is serving a smaller than anticipated percentage of target population youth, correct course (either changing recruitment and enrollment to have greater success at reaching the target population, or redefining the target population if, for some reason, the former is not appropriate or feasible).

Surveys / Assessments


Sources Cited

Dryfoos, Joy G. (1990). Adolescents at Risk. New York: Oxford University Press.

Dryfoos, Joy G. (1998) Safe Passages: Making it through adolescence in a risky society. New York: Oxford University Press. Pp.32-41.

Rhodes, J.E. (2002). Stand by me: The risks and rewards of mentoring today’s youth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership. (2005) How to Build a Successful Mentoring Program: Using the elements of effective practice. 

Garrison, M. & MacRae, P. (2008). Foundations of Successful Youth Mentoring: Effective Strategies for Providing Quality Youth Mentoring in Schools and Communities, A Guidebook for Program Development. The Hamilton Fish Institute on School and Community Violence & The National Mentoring Center at the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Additional Resources

MENTOR/National Mentoring Partnership

The Hamilton Fish Institute and the Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory

National Collaborative on Workforce and Disability for Youth, Institute for Educational Leadership.