Texting Teen Mentees for Better Communication

Submitted on Wed, 4/25/2012 - 10:56am

Howa Family Center

Howa Family Center

  • Four employees
  • Based in Walker, MN
Although kids all carry cell phones and use them constantly, they use them in a different way than adults tend to use them.

For 15 years, the small staff of the HOWA Family Center has worked to enrich lives through mentoring for children, families and communities. One of its programs pairs students in grades four-through-eight with student mentors in high school. The students form friendships, meet during study breaks and lunch periods and for such afterschool activities as field trips, arts and crafts, service learning projects, and outdoor recreation, said Jane Furuseth, the program manager and mentoring coordinator.

Furuseth noticed she was having increasing difficulty reaching the high school mentors, both by telephone and by email. "We'd always communicated with them by email," she said, "but they'd more or less stopped responding."

When she tried to identify the cause, she realized that, though they all carried cell phones and used them constantly, the kids were using them in a different way than adults tended to use them.

"Apparently, kids aren't using email at all anymore," Furuseth said. "It's kind of a waste of time with this age group. And they're not allowed to have their cell phones on at school, but most of them still do—they just keep them on vibrate, so they would never answer a phone call during the day. But they were always sending text messages."

When one of the kids sent her a text message, she recognized it as the preferred medium for the age group, and followed their lead by texting whenever she needed to reach one of them. "Well, I had a phone," she said. "It was never a board decision where we sat down and looked at communication models or anything like that, it was just a way to meet a need. You know, it worked? I found that the easiest way to communicate with them was through texting. Now, if I need to give them a reminder about an activity or ask them a question, I send them a text, and they are typically very quick to respond."

Her solution did not cost anything other than the cost of her existing data plan, and though she's not tracking metrics to measure its success beyond the number of students she's able to contact, the results speak for themselves. "It's definitely increased our quality of services," she said. "When I can get a message to a mentor quickly, and they can respond, sometimes that will make a difference if a mentor can even see their mentee that day."

The success has inspired her to turn to technology in other ways as well, she said. She's noticed the high school kids constantly check their Facebook pages, and she thinks that might be a good way for the HOWA Family Center to advertise programs and let kids know about upcoming events.

Furuseth said that, despite her success texting with high school mentors, it's not a one-size-fits-all solution for the organization's other programs.

"We also have adults that mentor kids one-on-one, after school and on weekends, in the community, and I'm guessing that right now only half know how to use texting," she said. "A lot ... just haven't bought into the idea."

By Laura Quinn, Idealware and Amy Wagner, MAP for Nonprofits

This case study originally appeared in the report Unleashing Innovation: Using Everyday Technology to Improve Nonprofit Services. You can download the full report for free at http://www.mapfornonprofits.org/innovation