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The Story of Tutor/Mentor Connection

I recently interviewed Dan Bassill, president and founder of Tutor/Mentor Connection, a well-respected organization in Chicago that provides extensive mentorship-related resources as well as an online community for tutor/mentor program educators, facilitators, fundraisers, policymakers, and other interested parties.  Dan has long been a supporter of the use of GIS and online mapping in a nonprofit/community context, and T/MC was providing interactive online maps years before the "Mashup Explosion" of this decade.

What is your role at T/MC?

Tutor/Mentor Connection (T/MC) is part of a larger organization called Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection, which was created in 1992 by me, and six other volunteers.  I am President, CEO and chief innovation officer.

The Cabrini Connections program ( is a site-based tutor/mentor program that connects 75-80 teens from the Cabrini-Green area of Chicago each year, with one-on-one volunteers and a variety of enrichment and learning activities.

The T/MC was born from knowledge I had accumulated to help our own programs from 1973 to 1992.  In 1993, we formalized this into a knowledge library, with a database of all tutor/mentor programs in Chicago, and a marketing strategy intended to help every program get more of the operating resources they need on a more consistent basis.

How did you become involved with T/MC?

How did T/MC begin?

Who was involved with founding T/MC?

The roots of the T/MC go back to 1965 when employees of the Montgomery Ward corporate headquarters in Chicago responded to a call-to-involvement from the Chicago Housing Authority, following race riots in Chicago.  These volunteers began meeting with 2nd to 6th grade kids in one of the Cabrini Green buildings on Chicago Avenue, directly across the street from the Wards HQ complex. By 1970 the program had grown to close to 100 volunteers and it began operating from the employee cafeteria in the Wards Merchandise building.

I joined Wards as an advertising copywriter in the summer of 1973, after graduating from Illinois Wesleyan University in 1968 and spending three years in Army Intelligence.  I was recruited to be a tutor that fall.

At the end of the first year of tutoring, I was recruited to join a committee of volunteer program leaders, and at the end of the second year I was recruited to be the leader.  From that point forward, I’ve spent every fall recruiting youth and volunteers, and spent the next 11 months of each year trying to keep them involved.

Wards began to downsize in 1980, and as that happened those of us who were left took on more responsibility. To handle the extra workload, I began using computers. I was one of the first using an Apple Lisa, and this progressed to PCs and Macs over the next 10 years.  As we found ways to use the computer for ad planning, I also found ways to use computers to manage the growing number of volunteers and students in our tutor/mentor program.

When I became the leader of the program at Wards I had no previous experience in leading a volunteer-based tutor/mentor program.  Someone at Wards suggested that I “find others who were leading programs and invite them to lunch” so I could learn from them.  I reached out to programs operating in Cabrini Green and at some area companies and we begin to meet monthly to learn from each other. From this, we began to build supportive relationships, and we begin to collaborate on volunteer training events.

From 1975 to 1990, I learned a few things from these experiences that still guide me today.

a)The only one who can invite people to come together, or speak with knowledge about the state of tutoring/mentoring in Chicago is the one with the database of contact information. No one else was collecting that type of information.

b)From time to time media stories would tell of kids being killed, or poor schools, poverty, or gangs.  Sometimes the level of indignation would reach the front page, with editorial writers saying something like, “7-Year-Old’s Death at Cabrini Requires Action” (which was the front page of the Chicago Sun Times on Oct. 15, 1992).

c)When media did these stories, they only pointed to some of the programs in Chicago working with kids, not all of them.  They only pointed to some of the neighborhoods where there was high poverty and poor schools, not all of them.

d)After a few days, the media would move on to another story.

Thus, the media and leadership in Chicago did not work the same way as the advertising departments at Wards and other businesses that need to have their message in front of the public every day, and to a growing number of people, if they are going to attract attention, and draw those customers to their stores.

Furthermore, while companies like Wards had teams of people working to make sure we had stores all over the country in places where there were potential customers, there was no leadership in Chicago taking this role.  In addition, while Wards had other teams making sure each store was stocked with merchandise wanted by customers, and with well-trained people, no leader in Chicago (or the country) was taking this role to make sure tutor/mentor programs were in all places where kids needed them, or that programs had the consistent funding and other resources they needed to attractive kids and volunteers and keep them involved for many years.

In 1990 I was given the opportunity to leave Wards.  I converted the original volunteer program to a non profit, so we could continue to improve what we were doing with the 2nd to 6th grade kids, while launching new programs for older kids, and creating a strategy to help similar programs grow in more places.  By June 1992, that program involved more than 550 volunteers from more than 100 Chicago area companies, and 440 2nd to 8th grade teens. 

However, the strategies of the program were not fully supported by the Board of Directors that I had recruited in 1990, so in the fall of 1992, I and six other volunteers separated from that program and created Cabrini Connections, Tutor/Mentor Connection to pursue our goals.

What is the strategic goal of T/MC?

The mission of the Tutor/Mentor Connection (T/MC) is to provide an organized framework that empowers and encourages adult volunteers to contribute their time, effort, ideas and advocacy toward creating life-changing solutions for children in educationally and economically disadvantaged areas.
This mission is accomplished through a four part strategy:
1) Collect knowledge from key stakeholders about volunteer-based tutor/mentor programs.  This knowledge includes:  How programs succeed, where programs are located, and where more programs and resources are needed.
2) Aggressively share this knowledge through marketing and public awareness campaigns, capitalizing on the Internet as a chief vehicle of communication.
3) Strengthen involvement of community and industry leaders to increase essential resources to tutor/mentor programs.
4) Facilitate understanding and collaboration among stakeholders to develop the long-term, integrated actions needed to help youths move from birth in poverty, to a job or career by age 25.

What other organizations, if any, work on T/MC?

The T/MC is a de-centralized organization, meaning there are no formal partnerships with other organizations.  We attempt to unite programs based on a common vision, and common needs.

In January 1994 we launched a survey to learn what organizations in Chicago were providing volunteer-based tutoring/mentoring in non-school hours.  120 programs responded, telling us what age group they served, and what type of tutoring and/or mentoring they provided.  54% told us they had “little or no contact” with people in other programs, and over 70% said they would like more contact.  90% said they would come to a conference if it were at little or no cost and fit their schedule.

This list of programs was the beginning of a database than now includes more than 200 organizations.  Based on the survey comments, we organized the first Tutor/Mentor Conference in May 1994, inviting programs from the database to set up displays and offer workshops to share what they do.  70 people attended, and attendee feedback was so positive, we did it again in November 1994.  200 people attended the November Tutor/Mentor Conference that first year.

We’ve been hosting this conference every six months since then (, and more than 1000 organizations have attended at least one time.  At each conference, more than 30 workshops are offered and speakers are all volunteers.

In 1995 we began to work with Chicago Access TV to put tutor/mentor program listings on CANTV42 in August (to coincide with the start of the school year).  At the same time, we recruited programs to work with us to organize volunteer recruitment fairs in multiple locations. This was the beginning of an annual Chicagoland Tutor/Mentor Volunteer Recruitment Campaign.  At its peak in 2002, more than 165 organizations were involved.  Now we use the Internet to mobilize volunteers and point them to the database of programs which is at

Thus, there are many people from many programs involved in helping the T/MC. Some are involved for many years, while others only help us for only a short time.  Since 1993 there have been many others who have helped as well.  For instance, a researcher from Illinois Wesleyan University and one from Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC) helped us draft the tutor/mentor survey that we launched in 1994.  MCIC helped us with our mapping in 1993 and 1994 and graduate students from Northern Illinois University helped us move the map system to our offices in 1995.  Public Communications, Inc. was our PR partner from 1993 to 2002, helping us generate dozens of stories about tutoring/mentoring in Chicago media.  I was one of 10 people to represent Chicago at the 1997 Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future.

A volunteer from the University of Kansas helped us create an on-line documentation system in 2000, called OHATS (Organizational History and Accomplishments Tracking System).  We’re still using OHATS to document actions and show who we’re connecting with.  You can see this at (best viewed in Internet Explorer).  Log in using user name GUEST and password VISITOR to see how this works.  A volunteer from Baltimore improved and modernized OHATS for us in 2007 with work done by his company in India.

One of our volunteers created our first web site in 1998, and in 2005 the technology department of Indiana University–Purdue University Indianapolis (IUPUI) rebuilt the site at  A team of volunteers at a Chicago tech company is now rebuilding the site again.
We started working with lawyers at the Chicago Bar Foundation in June 1994, with the goal of raising new money for tutor/mentor programs.  In 1995 they began to give small grants to 15-20 programs during the T/MC conferences.  In 2001 this became the SunTimes, Judge Marovitz Lawyers Lend A Hand to Youth program, and it has awarded grants totaling $240,000 in 2007 and $217,000 in 2008.

The list of people who have helped us in this way grows on and on. This gives you an idea of its range.

How is mapping used in T/MC?

Where does the data for T/MC come from?

Did you build the mapping aspects of T/MC in-house or contract it or rely on volunteers or...?

In November 1992, when I was just beginning to build a database of tutor/mentor programs, the librarian at the United Way of Chicago asked me “how do I plan to display the information?”  I said I did not know.  She pulled out a geography magazine and showed me how information could be displayed on maps.  I was immediately hooked.

When people say pictures are worth 1000 words, I’m a believer.  A map can convey more information about the availability and distribution of public service than a telephone directory.

Without a map we could have a list of thousand of programs and still not be reaching all of the places where these programs are most needed.
The T/MC began to research Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology in late 1992 and early 1993. In March 2003 we connected with Metro Chicago Information Center (MCIC), and they offered to do our maps for us.  A couple of years later we realized that map making was a work of art that helped attract attention to our story, and that we needed to have more direct control in order to create maps as quickly as we needed them.  We also needed to be able to ensure that the stories we wanted to tell were being clearly conveyed.

We received generous computer donations from IBM, software from GIS software leader ESRI, and help from the geography department of NIU.  With this assistance, we launched our own in-house mapping, and we’ve been creating maps every year since.

Today, T/MC uses GIS mapping technology to show distribution of volunteer-based tutor and/or mentor programs, as well as areas of need (based on poverty, poorly performing schools, and violence).  While other groups may have basic lists of tutor/mentor programs in their data, T/MC is unique in its ability to query program data by “type” (pure mentor, pure tutor, mixed), “age group served” (k-6, 6-8, 9-12), and “time of day service is provided.”  Thus, users can not only find program locations, they can build a neighborhood or citywide understanding of programs availability for each age group in all poverty areas of the city.

However, creating the maps is just one part of the T/MC mapping strategy. Finding ways to increase the number of people who actually use these maps to build better understandings of issues and broader collaborations among community assets (business, faith groups, colleges, hospitals, political, etc.) is a bit more challenging.
T/MC program locator map
One way we have found to create enthusiasm for tutoring/mentoring as a part of a comprehensive solution to poverty, has been to supplement negative media stories with our maps. For instance, when the SunTimes devotes a full page to a story about poverty, gangs, poor schools, or violence they often spend in excess of $250,000 to draw readers to their papers. T/MC can create relatively cheap map supplements that capitalize on the buzz created by the media, and take the story a step further – helping to explain the demographics of why these issues might be occurring.  What is “The Rest of the Story”?  What is causing the problem?  The first step in any solution is understanding the problem. 

With T/MC maps in hand, community leaders, and individuals can then start looking for solutions.  With a bird’s-eye view, they can visualize where tutor/mentor programs already operate in relation to poverty, crime, community assets, and poorly-performing schools.  They can then analyze where community resources might come together to help students onto career paths, ultimately bringing money back into the impoverished community.  In this way, our agenda offers a potential solution for people concerned about the news they see.

T/MC thematic map

What mapping/GIS technologies are utilized in T/MC?

We use ESRI software for our in-house GIS development.  These high resolution, colorful, and provocative maps make fine demonstration pieces when blown up for conferences or galleries, or distributed in meetings with community, political, and media leadership.  Often the artistic map layouts we produce are framed and hung in local community-minded businesses such as the Hyde Park Hair Salon (President Obama’s barber) and Webster Wine Bar, in order to raise visibility and grassroots support from customers who frequent these neighborhood meeting places.  The in-house maps are widely circulated on social networks, in emails, and on blogs to raise support and awareness for tutor/mentor programs. 

However, we are also developing and hosting a unique online Google-based interactive Program Locator, which mirrors the data in our desk-top GIS, but enables users to customize T/MC program and community data collected over the past two years, for their specific neighborhoods and needs.  With this service (which we currently provide to the community for free), anyone from student to business/media leader can create a unique map to supplement their story, paste the map into their letter or online story, and help people understand the problems from their perspective, and on their schedule.  A beta version of the Program Locator was launched in March, 2009, and we continue to improve and debug this unique and powerful technology.

What are your immediate and long-term goals for T/MC?

Our immediate goals are to find funding and stay in business, to continue serving the students who rely on our being here, and to continue building on the buzz we have created, and our existing capacity for map-making and other strategies that boost support for tutoring/mentoring.

Our long term goal is to increase the number of leaders in industry, faith groups, hospitals, colleges, etc. who adopt the T/MC strategy as their own.  As described in the book, “The Spider and the Starfish,” there is strength in decentralized organizations with many leaders.  We want to create and build a strong virtual network of many leaders who share the same goals.  In the same book, the role of blended organizations that provide technology platforms that can be used by many people (such as eBay) is also described.  The T/MC is trying to create something similar.  Anyone can use the T/MC maps and other information hosted on our web sites, to innovate their own ideas and actions to support tutor/mentor programs in Chicago or beyond.  Our data is easily accessible and available.  Our maps are customizable, with increasingly useful data for anyone’s needs.  Our model is reproducible in other cities.
I would like to draw your attention to another strategic web site hosted by the T/MC, called Tutor/Mentor Institute, 
On this site we host short illustrated essays which share our ideas.  Many of these start with the question, “What are all of the things we need to do to assure that every child born in poverty is starting a job and career by age 25?”

To answer that question we need to collect and organize the things people are already doing in various parts of the world.  With new visualization technologies, we can sequence ideas the same way architects create blueprints that show the sequence of steps needed to build a building.  Every blueprint starts with a foundation, and then grows floor to floor until a structure is finished.  Without a blueprint we have people investing in “different floors” of child-raising, without a clear blueprint of what they are each trying to accomplish, and how they collaborate with others to make the structure come together efficiently and successfully.

These aforementioned “visualization technologies” include our in-house and interactive maps of course.  Additionally, T/MC also makes use of “concept maps.”  At the link below you can see an example of a concept map and how they can be used to show the range of influences and support kids need at different age levels.  (Notice that the individual nodes on the concept map connect to our links library and information specific to each node.)

We now have more than 1600 links in our links library, which you can view on this interactive map:

This blueprint of ideas is just a first step. We have more work to do.  There are many more ideas that can be added, based on the coming together of experiences of people working with kids, volunteers and donors in all parts of the world.

As we collect this information, and host the maps, we need people to form learning circles of friends, family, co-workers, classmates, etc. who review and discuss sections of the information each week the same way people review scripture each week, or review class assignments in a school or university.
As more people take ownership of these roles, in business, colleges, hospitals, politics, etc. the information will be better, and more people will be using the knowledge of others to innovate constantly improving ways to help kids to careers. These ways will not only influence kids, but will influence people who don’t live in poverty and who control private wealth, public policy, and business workforce development and marketing strategies.

We don’t need everyone to take these roles.  We only need a few leaders in each sector.  The combined efforts of such a small group of people can change the world for kids in poverty, and for non profits trying to help them.  On a small scale, this is already happening, as we have more than 100,000 visitors and record more than 1 million page views each year on our web sites.  However, our vision of the future is that more and more people will use this information to benefit more and more kids and communities.

How can people learn more about T/MC?

On November 19 and 20 we’ll host another conference in Chicago and one of the speakers will be Valdas Krebs, who is an expert on Social Network Analysis.  We’ll post links to this information on our

If readers can come to the conference just to learn about how to map your network and train it to become the sales force for your organization, this will be a worthwhile investment of time.  If you cannot attend, please read about these ideas on our web sites and blogs.  Every day we can write articles and post them on Twitter, blogs, Facebook and our email newsletter channels.  When other people pass this information on to the people in their networks, we will reach people all over the world with the same frequency that Walmart, Search, ATT and President Obama are reaching their own communities of interest.