ReWORKing Welfare Technical Assistance for States and Localities. 34. Motivating Participants


One of the functions of case managers in a work first program is to market the goal of employment and to help motivate participants in their job search. Participants will likely enter the program with a wide range of expectations and with their own personal and employment goals. If participation is mandatory, then many of those who come into the program may not share the work first philosophy or may not be interested in pursuing employment at that time. Many may also have low self-esteem. Often, participants have tried and failed to find jobs on their own, or have worked but have not been able to remain self-sufficient.

It is important to realize that one individual cannot directly motivate another. Case managers can, however, tap into existing motivation in participants by helping them to define their own goals and showing them how the program can help them achieve those goals. The following specific techniques can help case managers appeal to participants' internal motivation:

  • Promote the financial and nonfinancial benefits of working. Let participants brainstorm about why they are better off working, for financial reasons (such as being able to move to a better home or buy their children clothes) to nonfinancial ones (such as self-esteem and independence). Emphasize any financial incentives, including transitional benefits and the Earned Income Credit (see sections 37-39). Some participants may believe that working will make them financially worse off; they may need to be convinced that work will pay before they feel motivated to try.
  • Talk with participants about their children. Their children are a key motivator for parents. Discuss what working will mean for participants' children, both financially and in other ways. For example, participants often say that they would like to be able to buy more things for their children. Working can also make participants better role models for their children and eliminate the stigma children may feel about receiving welfare.
  • Show the bigger picture. For many participants, it may be hard to get motivated about an entry-level position. Others may believe that the best way to get ahead is through education and training, rather than through getting a job right away. Explain the philosophy behind work first. Participants may get motivated more easily if they see a path that can lead them to their longer-term goals and if they understand that their first job can be a steppingstone to better things. Walk participants through a sample job progression so that they can see where they might be in five years if they were to start a minimum-wage job today.
  • Use your own and others' experiences. Staff members can be role models for participants. Single parents, working parents, or staff who went to school while working can all say to participants, "I did it, and so can you." Bringing in former participants to share their success stories is another great way to motivate participants and show them that the program can work.
  • Celebrate success. Help participants set attainable goals and then offer positive reinforcement for incremental achievements. For some participants, attending regularly or going on a first job interview is a real achievement. Celebrate publicly when participants find jobs, and make placements very visible in the office by posting the names and photographs of participants who have found jobs.
  • Present the program as an opportunity. Most participants share a belief in the value of work and the long-term goal of self-sufficiency. Emphasize what the program can do to help participants achieve that goal. Encourage participants to take advantage of the services that can help them get off welfare, and assist them in using those services.
  • Help participants expand their thinking. People often get stuck in a pattern of thinking very narrowly about what they are able to do. Explore the positive things participants have accomplished and the range of skills they have acquired. Help participants overcome barriers-both real and perceived-to employment, so that they can focus on their employment goals rather than getting caught up in the difficulties of working.
  • Show that you believe in the program and in participants. Participants often come to the program with low self-confidence and self-esteem. Often, they have tried and failed to find jobs on their own, or have had jobs but not been able to keep them. Staff members need to convey their belief that participants have skills and abilities, that the program can help participants succeed, and that they expect success. Send personal notes to participants' homes-of encouragement if they are having trouble, or of congratulations if they have achieved a success.
  • Provide new challenges. As participants reach incremental goals, new challenges can keep them motivated to achieve more. For example, as participants get jobs, Project Match in Chicago tracks who is still working after three months, six months, nine months, one year, and 18 months, and publicizes this information in a quarterly newsletter. This not only recognizes each step as a positive achievement but also presents a next level for each participant to work toward.
  • Talk about welfare reform. Participants are well aware that welfare policy is changing. Discussing changes such as time limits and work requirements-both those that have already been made and others that are being considered-can motivate participants by reminding them that the financial supports they have now may not be available in the future. Many participants also share the belief that welfare should provide only transitional assistance. Welfare reform can spark discussion of the importance of work and the goals of work first.