Charity Finds Success in Work With At-Risk Children, but It’s Costly

“Focus is so important,” she said. “Nonprofits stretch themselves too thin.”

At the same time, Ms. Jonker said, the national organization knew what it could do well for all the chapters — centralized data collection, marketing, accounting and other back office work — and allowed chapters to adapt to their communities.

“Frequently, tensions tear apart nonprofits,” she said.

The national organization reached out to professionals who were already established in the cities where there was interest in starting a chapter. The executive director of the Los Angeles chapter, Thomas Lee, had 20 years of experience in child welfare there before joining Friends last year.

Mr. Lee was skeptical of the program at first, he said, but was won over by the small mentor-to-child ratio, the competitive pay that would attract qualified candidates and the organization’s ability to retain mentors for seven years, on average.

“It’s better not to have a mentor than to have one for a short time,” he said. “It’s common for some kids to bounce around foster home to foster home six, eight, 15 times. That doesn’t help create the strategies for long-term success that we’d want.”

James Tyrrell, 29, went through the Friends program in Portland and had the same mentor, John Foster, the entire time. He credits it with helping him deal with the murder of his father when he was 2, his mother’s leaving him with her parents and addiction problems in his family.

“It was consistency with that one positive adult in my life,” said Mr. Tyrrell, a court clerk south of Portland. “If I didn’t have him, I don’t know where I’d be.”

He added that his mentor had told him, “You know where this path leads, and you can go for it, but why not try this one over here?” That’s what he did, said Mr. Tyrrell, who graduated from college, moved away from his family and now has a wife and two children.