Who’s Not Here?

A social service or program is almost always designed with a target group in mind: for example, newcomers to Canada with limited English skills who are looking for employment, female students graduating from high school who cannot afford the traditional prom experience, or people who have a family member with a disability and want to share their experiences and find mutual support. Regardless of the specific issue, the idea is that there is a population out there who could benefit from your initiative.

In an ideal world, everyone who could participate would do so: of course, we do not live in an ideal world, and there will always be a proportion (small or large) of that group who are missed. Given this reality, why bother trying to learn more about these non-users? The reasons fall into two main camps: incremental improvements and developmental insights.

Incremental improvement

Your program is great but something in the execution is off, such as:

  • Potential participants don’t know about the program
  • They don’t believe they could benefit
  • The program is not held at a convenient time
  • The location is not easily accessible, either in the geographic sense (poor public transit service, lack of parking) or physically (lack of barrier-free access for people with disabilities)
  • Childcare is not available

If one or more of these barriers are present and keeping people away, the solutions tend to be relatively straightforward and usually don’t require changing the basics of the program itself. Awareness or beliefs can be addressed through an outreach campaign that raises awareness about the service and convince participants that the program will provide a benefit. Resources permitting, issues related to time, location, and basic enabling supports like childcare or transportation can be modified. One important factor to note is that these factors are all easier to change before the program is launched, so it’s best to reach out to potential participants as early as possible, even during the planning stages, to make sure barriers are removed or minimized.

Developmental Insights

Sometimes, there’s a deeper reason why someone chooses not to use your services: namely, there is a mismatch between what you’re providing and the needs of your potential participants. This challenge can be difficult to notice as your program (presumably) has at least some people coming out and benefiting. Once you’ve accounted for the barriers described above, what’s stopping others from attending?

One point that I remember from Michael Quinn Patton’s workshop on development evaluation is that a group which outsiders may at first glance see as unitary often consists of smaller sub-groups. We may believe that all newcomers or people in poverty are, if not exactly the same, similar enough that a program can capture all of them. However, even if we narrow the focus and create a support program for, say, single mothers living in poverty, we may still see sub-groups that are often context-dependent: run the same program in another city or another year and these groups may be drastically different.

Although these sub-groups can complicate service planning and delivery, understanding their perspective can help identify additional partners and resources, as well as suggest new approaches or initiatives. For example, an immigration-related program may not be relevant for individuals who have previous experience in the country as a student or visitor: instead of dismissing them as “non-users”, the program can be modified so that these experienced hands can volunteer as mentors for other newcomers, while at the same time building their own social networks. Other immigrants may be more willing to rely on family members, close friends, and ethnocultural associations and networks for support upon arrival: rather than reinvent the wheel, a settlement agency can connect with and offer information and training to these community sources of support. Somewhat paradoxically, non-users can help strengthen the work of your organization!

Regardless of whether you’re looking for incremental improvement or embarking on a developmental journey, learning more about these non-users is not an easy task: since they are by definition not participating, it’s often difficult to reach them and get their opinion. Next week, I will share some ideas on how to reach out and find some useful answers, but in the meantime feel free to share your own ideas and resources in the comments below, through social media, or traditional means.

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