CICF News / 2012 / July / News Post
July 19, 2012
Building Better Bigs

Big Brother and Little Brother at Victory Field.

In 2010, leaders at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana spotted an alarming trend: four out of 10 mentoring matches were dissolving in less than a year. For an organization that prides itself on long-lasting, meaningful relationships between its matches, the results were disheartening. They were above the national average, but below what some other affiliates were achieving. Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana wanted to improve how it made matches – and fast.

Many factors in mentoring relationships correlate with positive outcomes for kids. One of the most critical (and most studied) factors is the length of the mentoring relationship. If a mentor or mentee breaks off the partnership in less than six months, the outcomes for children typically range from nonexistent to negative. At six months, a few positive outcomes emerge. But at twelve months, youth mentees demonstrate a number of changes – self worth and relationships with parents improve, skipping school and use of drugs and alcohol decline.

Over the last two years, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana’s board and staff have borrowed a quality improvement process from the corporate arena to address this challenge. In the process, they have discovered that their greatest barrier to success is an incredibly human challenge – building positive relationships between adult mentors and the parents of the children they mentor. And they found some new approaches to address that challenge, with financial support from The Glick Fund, a CICF fund.

Six Sigma for a Social Service

For Big Brothers Big Sisters, the match retention improvement process began with help from Cummins, a company best known for manufacturing engines.

Building long-lasting mentor matches takes communication, connection and fun activities.

Six Sigma is a business management strategy that identifies barriers to outcomes and seeks to eliminate them from any process. Businesses that utilize Six Sigma have champions for the process who receive special titles like “Black Belt” and “Green Belt”. The Six Sigma process has been especially popular with manufacturers, from Motorola where the approach was created to Cummins, a manufacturer that decided to lend its Six Sigma experience to helping Big Brothers Big Sisters improve their match retention.

Instead of applying their expertise with fuel delivery or underwater engine development, Cummins brought Six Sigma to the organization. Working alongside a Six Sigma “Black Belt” from Cummins, Big Brothers Big Sisters staff have assessed data, conducted interviews with Big Brothers and Sisters (“Bigs”), Little Brothers and Sisters (“Littles”) and parents, and engaged the entire staff in identifying challenges and crafting solutions.

The process has given the agency a solid understanding of what is really most important in creating long-term match relationships. Age, race, residence location, parental incarceration and poverty are not major factors. Instead, the process has revealed that Big Sisters-Little Sister matches are more likely to end early. Female matches connected to one-parent female-headed households are also especially likely to end early.

“Our interviews revealed that those Big Sisters were more likely to get frustrated, to sometimes be more judgmental,” says Darcey Palmer-Shultz, Chief Executive Officer of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana. “Single mothers with daughters often felt jealous or insecure, knowing they’d want to be doing those fun things with their daughters.”

The organization has implemented a new focus on building relationships for the full match team, which includes the parent, the Big, the Little and the Match Specialist in a supportive role.

From the Front Porch to the Front Room

Big Brothers Big Sisters is now in the middle of their four-part effort to forge effective mentoring relationships with that team. They are creating and implementing processes and interventions that help all involved prepare for, build, grow and maintain matches. Staff develop improved trainings, focused conversations on “Parents as Partners” and crisis intervention strategies. One of the most simple but significant changes is that match teams now meet, for the first time, in the parents’ and Littles’ homes.

“Starting in the home moves the relationship from the front porch to the front room,” says Neal Gore, Match Specialist. “We sit down together and really share about ourselves, and I can see that it makes a difference for our parents and our Bigs.”

While the organization is still shaping and utilizing new approaches, the focus on match retention is already improving results. From 2010 to 2011, the organization saw a 10 percent growth in 12-month retention. The six-month retention rates indicate that the effort continues to work. For organizational leadership, the outcomes are key, not because of the numbers, but because of the impact on the youth they serve.

“The worst possible thing we can do is build a relationship that is likely to end early,” says Palmer-Shultz. “So, we’re committed to improving quality, even when it’s a bit less efficient or more of a challenge.”

More about The Glick Fund.
Photos courtesy of Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana.