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Are Finances a Barrier for Your Program Applicant?

Calgary Learns’ grants support foundational learning programs for adults with financial barriers. Some practitioners have asked us how to best discern if the adults applying to participate in their Calgary Learns funded program have financial barriers.  We have seen a variety of respectful practices from our funded programs, and so prior to Christmas we sent a survey asking practitioners to share ways of determining financial eligibility in a manner that ensures dignity. The following highlights some of suggestions which we hope will support practitioners during the intake process.

Suggested respectful ways to discern if financial barriers exist for an adult applying to your program:

  1. Be clear about the financial eligibility criteria in recruitment materials, as well as in responses to telephone/email inquiries.
  1. Gather information in conversation through indirect questions. Building relationships with learners starts before the first class.  A conversational tone takes the power dynamic out of the intake meeting when personal questions are being asked before a relationship has been developed.
  • Ask about goals. The resulting conversation often reveals a desire for employment or “a better job”, which leads naturally to asking about current circumstances in a general way (without specifics of income and expenses). 
  • Do not ask specific details on how much money the person makes; simply ask how they receive income. We can be aware that someone is lower income by noticing if they receive funding from sources which will require confirmation of low income. 
  • When asking about the means of income, provide examples to normalize what is common for other adults participating in this learning program  (e.g. Alberta Works / Calgary Transit / Calgary Housing / AB Supports, AISH / EI / PDD /  part time job).  A benefit of listing possible sources of income is that the resulting conversation allows staff to provide insight and support if the person is interested in applying for it. 
  • Notice if the client specifically asks if bus tickets or food will be part of the program 
  1. If a more direct approach is preferred, you might ask:
  • “Do you identify as low-income?”
  • “Do you have difficulty meeting your monthly basic needs (e.g. groceries, rent, children’s needs)?” A benefit of wording the question this way is that the resulting conversation allows staff to support useful referrals for basic needs.
  • “If this program came with a registration fee of (name approximate amount it would cost to deliver if the program were not free), would you have been able to register?” 

Advice for a new practitioner who is struggling with this process:

  • Remember that the first meeting (where information is often gathered) can be scary. Learners may feel vulnerable to a power dynamic, in terms of roles and previous experiences. Come to intake meetings thinking about a conversation rather than about completing a checklist. 
  • Clear is always kind. Giving context to the “why” you ask specific questions is helpful. It helps with clarity, without making it personal. (For supervisors supporting new practitioners, giving background to the reason for the question supports staff who are conducting the intake conversations. They can then share funding requirements with learners as a reason for tying finances to program eligibility.) 
  • Let learners know if you plan to take notes during the intake, as this can also be unsettling. If you can, save note writing for after. You want to be engaged in natural conversation about their learning goals and needs, and about who they are as a person.
  • Ask open-ended questions when asking about learners’ needs, goals and struggles. 
  • Ensure that an adequate amount of time is allocated for the learner-intake to ensure the first meeting is welcoming rather than being simply focused on completing an administrative process. This helps to build relationships. Not having basic needs income is very shameful for people, and a genuine concern and welcome can change everything. 
  • Have some resources available to share, so potential learners leave feeling supported and respected.
  • Assessments should be done in one on one setting with first language support.
  • Reach out to staff at other organizations to ask how they address sensitive topics during intakes.  There is a strong community to support you.


Do you have tips from the field that you would be willing to share? We would love to hear them! Please get in touch with Heidi (hgrogan@calgarylearns.com).

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