You can enable strong access to benefits supports by choosing the right staff and providing a supportive environment for them. Learn what supports are critical for staff who are delivering access to benefits services.
It is important for staff to have a social work skill set as the foundation for benefit access work. Skills such as empathetic listening, patience, cultural competence, communication, and advocacy are critical. Finance and benefits-related information can be learned on the job, but a social work skill set is harder to teach for a staff member with no prior experience.
A social work skill set is critical because benefits and finances are delicate topics that need to be explored with sensitivity and tailored to each person’s unique circumstances. Staff are not providing advice but instead are coaching and offering resources and choice.
Supporting benefits access takes time. Staff will require flexibility and support in their scheduling to do this work, as a simple conversation about the benefits of filing taxes can blossom into a larger engagement with clients about the benefits available to them, and the steps they need to take to access them. Without the time and space to engage on this topic, staff may not actively provide access to benefits supports even if they feel these supports are important.
As there many ways to do this work, it is important for staff to know their roles and boundaries. Having flexibility and fewer boundaries enable staff to be more adaptive in their approaches to supporting clients, but having clear boundaries also helps them maintain positive and safe relationships.
Consider and define what is within scope for staff to do. For example, are staff able to go with clients to appointments, such as a doctor’s appointment to help advocate for a disability benefits application, or must they remain on site? What types of requests can staff help with, and what is outside of their scope?
Role clarity will ensure staff feel confident about the benefits supports they can provide, which can then be communicated clearly to clients. Supports that are outside your organization’s boundaries may be delivered elsewhere. Staff should refer clients to these supports to ensure that clients feel their needs are being met.
To ensure staff have the time and flexibility to provide quality access to benefits service, your internal incentive and performance management structures should support this activity.
For example, in frontline service contexts, it is common for staff to have a target average time spent per client. This type of target can get in the way of the flexibility that quality access to benefits services require. If staff feel they don’t have the time to provide these services, they may default to providing the bare minimum. Instead, consider how staff will be recognized for providing quality access to benefits support and how they are evaluated so they are encouraged and rewarded for providing access to benefits services.
Similarly targets based on dollar outcomes may be very misleading since there are benefit programs that may not have easily quantifiable dollar outcomes, such as a food bank or setting up direct deposit or have low dollar impact such as a leisure pass or reduced transit fare but have a very significant impact on the lived experience of the household.
Providing certain kinds of benefits support requires specific training. For example, legal supports should only be undertaken by trained legal professionals. Other areas of support may not require a professional designation but should be accompanied by training and onboarding to ensure that staff feel supported and able to provide these services.
Tax filing, benefits screening, documentation access, and advocacy supports all require some background training and onboarding. There may be existing training programs already available, such as Prosper Canada’s Foundations of Access to Benefits course, or the training available for Community Volunteer Income Tax Program tax preparers.
On-the-job shadowing and learning have been reported to be the primary way that staff learn to do this work well. If your organization doesn’t have staff with this expertise, consider reaching out to other community organizations that do for training and advisory support. You can browse agencies that provide various Access to Benefits services on the Benefits Wayfinder help page.