A look at voluntary mentoring on adults

What can a systematic literature search tell us about the state of voluntary mentoring on adults in general and of mentoring research in the Nordics in particular?

Munthe-Kaas, H.M., Kurtze, N., & Hammerstrøm, K. (2012). Systematic mapping of research on voluntary mentoring programs for adults.

In 2012, the Norwegian Knowledge Center for the Health Services carried out a systematic mapping of research on voluntary mentoring programs for adults. The project was commissioned and funded by the Directorate for Integration and Diversity (IMDI) and was part of the preliminary work for a project by Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Finnish integration ministries, the aim of which was to “measure the effects of mentoring on social inclusion among low-skilled migrant women”. As of now, the broader project has not yet been published, but a follow up study was carried out in 2018.

The report outlined and discussed here is one of the results of this project. It’s a review study mostly describing what is going on in the field. It is not an assessment of the included studies methodologies or outcomes.


Categorization and mapping of research is useful because it gives an overview of the research on the topic. For this study, researchers used a coding form to categorize references. Relevance was assessed based on information from titles, abstracts, and keywords rather than a complete review of the entire articles included.

Since references were coded more than once for a category, for example if it used multiple research methods, the N in category varies.

Included in the review were studies on:

Mentoring programs by NGOs, voluntary organizations, public sector, or where mentors were volunteers OR mentoring programs for immigrants and/or low-skilled adults AND any/no intervention with outcomes relating to psychosocial factors, social inclusion and integration, entry into the workforce or education.

Excluded were:

Non-empirical studies other than systematic reviews AND programs targeting participants under 18 AND mentoring aiming at academic achievement in higher education or in a professional context.


Of the 3229 unique references, the researchers included 91 for further categorization.

The studies included in the final mapping were published between 1980 and 2012.

In addition to general categories such as publication year and type, purpose, design and participant age, the 91 references were categorized according to keyword topics regarding intervention, outcome and population characteristics.

Country of origin:

50 of the 91 studies were from the USA. The country with the second most studies was the UK. The Nordic countries had the fewest studies included in the mapping. Only 2 were from Scandinavia, one of which was a comparison study by Loos (2007) on Spanish, Austrian and Danish initiatives to integrate low-skilled adults into the labor market.

Study design

26 studies employed a qualitative design, 15 conducted a randomized controlled trial (RCT), 10 used a survey design and 26 were unclear.

Target group

Women were the largest target group in the summary (20 studies out of 119). 19 of the studies targeted Immigrants and refugees. People with health-related issues were targeted in 16 studies, and 15 studies targeted disadvantaged/low income/welfare recipients.

Participant age

The majority of studies did not specify age of the target groups. 20 studies targeted young people ages 18-25. Five studies targeted adults (26-66), and retirees above 67 years of age were targeted in three of the studies.

Program goals

The search identified 14 different program goals ranging from education and employment entry, income support, improved quality of life, social inclusion etc. 33 of the articles fell into an “other” category.


Out of 170 references included in the outcome categorization, 61 studies were either unclear or categorized as other or non-applicable.

The remaining 109 studies had outcome keywords ranging from quality of life and self-esteem, to symptom reduction and relapse prevention. The outcome used by the largest group of studies was related to mental health. 23 outcomes were identified in total.


It’s encouraging that IMDI commissioned this report, even though it was conducted way back in 2012. Even though a follow up study was conducted in 2018, the broader project has not been completed to our knowledge. This is unfortunate because the intentions of the broader project were important both in terms of increasing our knowledge on mentoring and strengthening cross-national collaboration.

The results of the review show that the field is immature in terms of refining and reporting measures and design. Looking through the result summarization, it is clear that the field has a number of challenges in terms of reporting basic factors. Both when it came to age and gender of the studies participants, the largest category was “unclear/unspecified”. Similarly, the study designs were not specified in more than a fourth of the included references. This type of neglect hampers the ability of reviews to offer more substantiated insights into the status of the field and thwarts our understand of what can be done to make mentoring more effective.

Relatively few studies (15 out of 109) used a control group design. Controlled study designs are powerful when it comes to measuring effects of a program intervention. Relatively few studies used control groups (15 out of 109) and It may seem as though controlled studies are less used in the social welfare field compared to for example education or medicine (Munthe-Kaas, H.M., Nøkleby, H., & Baiju, N, 2018). This may be due to the complexity and context specificity required when conducting research in this field.

The number of outcomes identified through the mapping is noteworthy and it underscores the fact that mentoring programs largely differ when it comes to measurement. This is also echoed in the range of program goals. The lack of consistency across program development, implementation and measurement, makes it difficult for research to contribute fully.

In general, research on mentoring has had difficulty gaining the consistent results needed to merit the extensive amount of time and money put into its projects and initiatives. Despite the challenges faced by the field, mentoring research has made some great strides, particularly in North America. The Scandinavian countries are not evident in the report and it is clear that the Nordic region is a newcomer to these types of programs and studies. We’ve got a way to go in terms of building our own research and knowledge base. Increasing dialogue and stimulating new Nordic mentoring initiatives is one of the purposes of the NCEBM. Let us hope that 2021 brings an abundance of strong Nordic mentoring programs and rigorous research that can inform and strengthen their efforts in the region.


Munthe-Kaas, H.M., Kurtze, N., & Hammerstrøm, K. (2012). Systematic mapping of research on voluntary mentoring programs for adults. Memorandum from Kunnskapssenteret, 4.

Munthe-Kaas, H. M., Nøkleby, H., & Baiju, N. (2018). Employment-oriented mentoring programmes for vulnerable populations: a systematic review.

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