Rethinking Agency Intake: The Voter Connection

photo credit, junrinon, via Flickr

I know I’m not the only social worker who has read over an agency’s intake form and thought, “why in the world are we asking that?” or “who would seriously fill all of this out?” Seriously.

Out of respect for our clients, we must ask ourselves, always, if we need to know everything that we’re asking them. Do we need to know their income level? Their marital status? Their Social Security Numbers (hint: that last one is most often ‘no’, at least for those of us in the nonprofit world!)? If we can’t explain how each piece of information is connected to our programming and evaluation agenda, then we should NOT ask it, period.

So, after we review our agency intake materials and eliminate the questions that are hanging on because some funder once upon a time asked for them or we just assumed that everyone else asked them, so we should too, we should have some extra space and time in that initial encounter.

What to do with it?

Well, besides the obvious: get to the work of helping the person who came to us more quickly, we need to consider the tremendous potential to ask a few very, very simple questions that can have a much more profound impact on our clients’ lives: “Are you registered to vote?” “Can I register you to vote today?”

Intake is a prime opportunity to register our clients to vote; we’re already asking them questions, so why not add two that matter so much? Then, all you need to do is collect their name, address, and a little more identifying information, and you’ve got a newly-registered voter.

But what else can we do to make the voter/intake connection?

I’d like to see every nonprofit organization ask clients how they prefer to be contacted for service-related matters (related to their client relationship), advocacy issues, and volunteer opportunities. Since we won’t be needlessly asking about number of sexual partners anymore (until Allison Fine shared a similar story in Momentum, I thought I was the only one who had discovered that randomly on an intake form!), we can ask for cell phone numbers, and whether they are open to receiving text messages from us, for example. We can ask if they have any social media profiles that they’d like to use to connect to our agency (emphasis on they authorize the connecting!).

And, then, we can use those connections, and that data, to encourage our clients to go vote at election time (and, of course, to share advocacy information in the meantime, that connects the issues they face in their lives to the policy and political agendas decided by elections).

Then, we’ll have an agency intake process that really works: that provides us with the essential information we need to initiate the services that clients are seeking and that we know how to (excellently!) provide, and that sets the stage for a transformational relationship that views clients as co-creators of social change and lays the foundation for how we’ll work together to achieve a more just tomorrow.

And you can still run it off on multicolored paper if you really want to. Just like old times.

3 responses to “Rethinking Agency Intake: The Voter Connection

  1. I have often thought why do we need all that information and even when we collect it, does anybody really look at it? Not only do we gather useless or highly unnecessary and personal information, we often ask it again and again and precious time is wasted.

    Our clients experience an even higher level of frustration due to the amount of paperwork and redundancy and we may dissuade clients from seeking help (perhaps by design for some organizations). I’ve read about emergency departments that haven taken vending machines and comfortable chairs from their waiting rooms to encourage people to leave without being seen (often people without insurance). People with insurance go to urgent care or their physicians.

    • Absolutely, Alia. It drives me crazy when we espouse a commitment to empowerment yet send our clients the message that they have to sell their whole story to get any help from us. And, you’re right–it is a part of how we set the whole tone with clients as they first encounter our organizations. Unfortunately, I don’t think ERs are alone in hoping that some of those they serve will just fade away. That moment of first encounter is ripe with potential, and I think that engaging people as full citizens, and talking with them about their voter rights, can be a piece of transforming it.

  2. Melinda, Thanks for much food for the thought and I agree that encouraging people to take advantage of the right to vote does send the right message that they are fully participating members in the society and that they can impact their world on many levels.

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