Asking the right questions

At the Blagrave Trust, we fund exceptional charities creating impact for young people at key transition points in their lives. We know different methods work for different young people, and we do not seek to specialise our support in any one area.

This means we fund an extraordinary range of work covering areas as diverse as sports, arts, one to one case work and detached youth work.

We see huge value in promoting a wide infrastructure for young people’s support. This means we aren’t expert in any particular method or approach. We leave the expertise to our network of partners.

This leads to some interesting discussions at our grants committee meetings. There are questions about efficacy and impact that we can’t answer without consulting more widely.

One that has come up several times is: how effective is mentoring when delivered by volunteers as opposed to paid staff? Are there certain conditions that need to be met for volunteer mentoring to be effective?

We found ourselves asking: “Is volunteer mentoring just a cheaper way of delivering services?” and, if it is, “why do they need funding anyway!?”

For these reasons it was incredibly helpful to have Andy Malcolm, CEO of youth mentoring charity SMASH, join the Blagrave team meeting recently to brief us on their recent research into this area.


The Smash team have carried out a review of their delivery model, consulting with young people, staff, volunteers and stakeholders. After many years of delivering volunteer mentoring, they were looking to understand whether there was a future for a volunteer based service, given the massive increase in needs of young people and demand for their service. Should they invest solely in professional mentoring or does there remain a space for a volunteer service?

So the answer? It depends on circumstance. Volunteer mentoring works well when an intervention is likely to span a long period of time. Committed volunteers who are prepared to stay involved for a year or more to mentor a young person can make a huge impact on their lives. It’s well worth the resource to recruit, carefully match, train and support these volunteers.

But if a  young person needs a short term intervention, or their needs are particularly high or complex, it’s really important to build a relationship fast and this is where expert paid staff can excel. In cases of high complexity of need, there needs to be liaison with other paid professionals and here, a paid member of staff who is available in office hours to attend meetings, is essential. There’s also a high level of bureaucracy involved which a paid member of staff can be asked to complete, which volunteer mentors would often see as burdensome.

Andy brought a lot of clarity to the question of cost: working with volunteers is not a cheap option if it’s done well and properly. Matching and supporting volunteers is skilled work and needs to be resourced properly.

It was enormously helpful to have the first hand expertise of the SMASH team to reflect on. When we asked Andy what one thing he wanted funders to know about this work, he answered “Whatever form it takes, mentoring works and we need to support it”

For more information about SMASH Youth mentoring, see


31st May 2024