The Right Questions

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the benefits of learning more about those individuals who aren’t accessing your services or programs. Before sharing some ideas on connecting with these groups, I wanted to raise an important point: more than mere “wordsmithing”, the way you ask the question matters.

Let’s back up a second. How many times have you heard something along the lines of “How do we attract more […]?” The blank can be “youth”, “women”, “newcomers”, “low-income participants”, “visible minorities”, “people with disabilities” or any other label. On the surface, this question appears innocuous: you’re simply asking what can be done to reach out to a group that’s not present. That phrase comes with some troubling undertones though. People are reduced to a single overarching identity, ignoring their unique experiences and (as discussed in the original post) the potential that what you see as a unitary population may in fact consist of multiple subgroups with different strengths and challenges. At its extreme, it can make you seem like you want them in your program just to check off the box that you have sufficient representation from whatever identity you’ve labelled them with, making your outreach efforts seem tokenistic.

That type of question also has a paradoxical relationship with action. On the one hand, you’re predisposed to doing something (anything, perhaps?) to pave the way to increased participation. Simultaneously, this approach often comes with an underlying assumption that, although your organization is the one acting, the people you’re trying to attract are the ones with the problem. [Sarcasm alert] Perhaps they need to be made aware of how awesome your service is, or maybe they face some type of challenge or barrier that you’ve decided to graciously accommodate.

Good research, planning, and evaluation always begin with good questions. Instead of asking how do we get more people, start by asking an open-ended question: “why”. Why would they make use of your service or program in the first place? Why aren’t we seeing them here? As mentioned in the first post in this series, perhaps they’re drawing on strengths and resources you hadn’t considered. Maybe your organization has a bad reputation in the community, such as from previously taking a “How do we attract” approach that gave off the vibe of “We want you because you’ll make our program numbers look good”. Maybe your program or service isn’t so awesome after all, and you need to spend more time building relationships with the community instead of leaping immediately to action based on assumptions of what’s needed.

The answers from asking “why” may not suggest an immediate course of action. They may bring up uncomfortable truths about how your organization is viewed in the community. They could even shatter preconceived notions you may have held about those you work with and (nominally) serve. It’s not an easy process to ask why, but you need to trust that your organization can work through the difficult answers and ultimately become more responsive to the community as a result.

The next post will suggest some specific methods for reaching out and learning more about individuals and groups you may not have pre-existing connections with. In the meantime, let’s continue the conversation: share your thoughts below in the comments, on Twitter, or through the usual contact methods!

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