Who does it better? Why, US of course.

This week’s blog comes from our intern, Dave Nordsieck. Dave is on secondment with us for a year from US law firm Ropes and Gray. Dave’s experience of mentoring in the US is very different to ours here in the UK. So this week we’ve asked him to share some of this thoughts on how these differences may have come about.


Friendship Works long-term mission is to embed mentoring in communities as part of everyday life. It’s an ambitious goal, but one that we believe is ultimately necessary to ensure that all children in England who need a mentor have access to one.

Relative to the UK, mentoring is already firmly embedded in US culture, chiefly through the work of Big Brothers Big Sisters. In the US, youth mentors are universally recognized as valuable and admirable; mentoring is proudly added to CVs to demonstrate a person’s commitment and values, and it is often used in TV and film to signal that a character is a genuinely great person.

So why has mentoring developed less enthusiastically in the UK, and more importantly, what should be done about it?

I have a few thoughts on why the UK has been slower to embrace the concept of mentoring, but to be honest, my guess is as good as anyone’s. Following the industrial revolution, demographics began shifting towards urban environments and people increasingly found themselves in new types of communities. Beginning in the early 1900s and continuing throughout much of the century, the UK moved towards an increasingly comprehensive welfare state system. The US, however, experienced the same post-industrialization trend towards urban life but without the same rise in government-driven welfare programs experienced in the UK.

One explanation is that the newly defined sense of community in urban environments, combined with the rise of the welfare state, resulted in a belief that the government – not people in the community – should take responsibility for those in need. By contrast, many Americans want to eliminate what few social welfare programs they have under the belief that the government should not be involved, it should be people in the community. How those beliefs would play out in reality is a separate matter, but the belief that the community should take responsibility is widespread and of principal importance when considering how mentoring became embedded in US society.

So where does that leave us? Perhaps it’s more useful to look at how it worked in the US, rather than guess why it didn’t happen in the UK. Big Brothers Big Sisters started in New York in 1904 when a juvenile court clerk recognized a problem and decided to take action. Ernest Coulter said, “there is only one possible way to serve that youngster (who is in trouble) and that is to have some earnest, true man volunteer to be his big brother, to look after him, help him do right; make the little chap feel that there is at least one human being in this great city who takes a personal interest in him, who cares whether he lives or dies.” As we would put it more succinctly, young people need a trusted friend.

Maybe mentoring caught on so strongly in the US simply because one person had a good idea, a good network, and the persistence to see it through. No one can be sure if that’s what it takes to embed an idea into society, but that’s the formula that we’ll continue to use at Friendship Works.