marketing and adoption

You Can't Sell People ...Can You?

Matthew Higgins

The idea of allowing a marketing researcher into an adoption agency may not seem appetising for many social workers, adopters, or adoptees, (of which I am one). It conjures up images of slick suits and smooth talking, glitzy advertising and unjustifiable expense.

This article attempts to demonstrate that marketing can be used to focus the service, benefiting all parties in the child centred process. My argument is that such a focus necessitates a reassessment of the service that the agency is offering it's most valuable resource, the Applicant.

The article stems from a seven month study into an adoption agency in England, who, for reasons of confidentiality, will be referred to as 'Agency A'. This voluntary agency specialises in finding families for hard to place children, recruiting families from four counties.

Adoption agency A's problems may be familiar to many voluntary adoption agencies; they were experiencing a falling number of applications and a high drop out rate of those applicants that did submit themselves to the process. These problems were exacerbated by a lack of systematic knowledge of their applicants.

My involvement was intended to address these problems by finding who enters the adoption process, who drops out and for what reason.

This article is a summary of some of the findings and recommendations. Although centred on 'Adoption Agency A', it is hoped that this synopsis will have general interest.

Summary Headings

A Profile Of Agency A's Applicants and Adopters
Why and How Do People Choose Adoption
The Adoption Process
The Applicants Experience Of The Social Worker
What Can An Agency Do To Attract Prospective Adopters?
Developing An Accessible Complaints Procedure


It has been argued that adoption agencies are moving away from the traditional criteria of what makes good adoptive parents, namely childless and middle class. The findings of the study question the belief that there has been such a move.

90% of applicants to agency A and 14 of the 16 recorded families who were successful in adopting were married. 7% of applicants and two successful adopters were single females. There were no single male adopters. There were no homosexual adopters.

The age range of applicants and adopters at the time of the initial application was characterised by the deletion of extremities from applicants to adopters. The age of male applicants ranged from 23-64yrs with a mean of 38yrs, in comparison to male adopters who's age range was 29-56yrs with a mean of 41yrs. The female applicant age range was 23-58yrs (mean 37yrs), with the female adopter age range being 31-55yrs (mean 40yrs).

The majority of applicants to Agency A were predominantly white, with 96% of male applicants and 89% of female applicants being classified as Caucasian. Only one male and two female adopters being Black Afro-Caribbean.

The stated religion of the applicants, (67% of female and 62% of male applicants being Church Of England), requires caution as very few actually practised their religion.

Agency A recruited from four counties. 43% of applications or enquiries came from its immediate county, the remaining three counties producing 19%, 16% and 10%. 12% of enquiries stemmed from outside of the catchment area.

Despite the high number of enquiries from the immediate county, this was not represented in the number of successful adoptions from the area, where only six adoptions occurred. This is in comparison to seven adoptions from the county with 19% of enquiries.

Further investigation into this anomaly suggested that the conversion from enquiry to successful adoption is highly dependent on two variables. Firstly the ability of the Local Authority to provide an adequate adoption service, and secondly the assignment of Agency A's social worker for that area.

Link: What Can An Agency Do To Attract Prospective Adopters?

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The traditional argument that adoption is a second best option is upheld in this study. 91% of applicants wished to adopt due to infertility of either one or both of the partners.

However, using infertility as the reason for choosing adoption is too simplistic, it fails to account for why many infertile individuals and couples do not pursue adoption. It would also be wrong to suggest that applicants chose adoption due to their infertility.

It was not the failure of the infertility treatment that made the applicants consider adoption, rather it was their age, and the length of time they were undergoing treatment. Several applicants mentioned their desire to regain control of their lives and bodies from the scientific process, one respondent said:

"After 8-9 years of treading water with our lives in an attempt to have a family, we had finally had enough of the emotional upheaval."

Many prospective applicants wanted a baby, however due to many applicants ages when they finally decide to consider abandoning the infertility treatment, (an agency requirement before they are able to apply to adopt), they were considered too old for babies, moreover very few babies are available. Applicants must then undergo a reappraisal of their needs for the decision facing them is stark, consider an older child or remain on fertility treatment.

One respondent commented upon the importance of information to over-turn prior prejudices and beliefs:

"When I first started out, the idea of an older child was...I didn't want to know, but the more I looked into it, the more I realised it really didn't matter."

The benefits being sought vary from applicant to applicant. However of particular interest is what one might call the ratio of altruism to self interest. Infertile prospective applicants acknowledge the altruistic element of their decision to pursue adoption, i.e. to help a child. They however admit that their main motive, and thus the key benefit being sought, is a self interested experience of parenthood and normalisation.

Applicants whose altruistic motive is strong are often religious and/or have already experienced parenthood with their own birth children who are now in their teens. The following statement is characteristic of the benefits being sought by this type of applicant:

"The idea for example of setting them up, no matter what the level of handicap, like setting them up in their own flat so that they could live an independent life, we perceive that as very rewarding.."

Situational factors are also significant in allowing applicants to actively consider adoption.

Financial considerations should not be overlooked, after all children are expensive. Applicants who were infertile and childless often enjoyed a reasonably high standard of living, their money being spent on foreign holidays rather than children. Their time was occupied by a career, this being especially true for male applicants.

Applicants were often concerned about their financial situation once they had begun the adoption process. In several cases the female applicant temporarily suspended her career or job during the placement to look after the child, and the loss of one income had to be taken into consideration.

Despite the common perception, adoption is not always the ultimate escape route for infertile couples. Prospective applicants have usually considered adoption for some time, often prior to the realisation that they are experiencing fertility problems. This enduring involvement is signposted by reference to events in the media such as the Vietnamese 'Boat People', the Romanian orphanages and Central Television's 'Find A Family' appeal. These images keep the issue of child adoption fresh in people's minds. However prospective applicants often enter the adoption process with little knowledge about what adoption entails.

The desperate nature of available information about adoption is highlighted by the diverse sources used to gain information by the respondents.

Ignorance of adoption breeds concern, the prospective applicant does not know what to expect. Apprehension of rejection is a standard response from respondents, but it is also an uneasiness about the power the adoption agency wield over their destiny. Unsurprisingly fear about the agency's power is connected to the distrust of social workers. For example one applicant remembered her expectations of social workers:

"We had lots of perceptions about social workers, that they would all read the Guardian, eat lentils, wear sandals, dress in a peculiar fashion and talk a load of theory."

The lack of general information on adoption is related to the widely held perception that the Local Authority is the sole provider of adoption services. 67% of respondents initially approached the Local Authority. One respondent when asked why they initially contacted the Local Authority said:

"Out of ignorance really, because no one told us anything different. "

Upon contacting the Local Authority respondents commented on the general unhelpfulness and negativity of the organisation, although respondents often excused this by mentioning the limited resources of the public sector.

Links: A Profile of Agency A's Applicants and Adopters

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The adoption process is notoriously complex, resembling more of a twisty country road with hairpin bends and No Entry signs than a fast moving motorway. Eight critical stages were identified to allow an analysis of the process. These are:

  1. The prospective applicant makes an initial enquiry.
  2. They receive an information pack.
  3. They attend an open evening or meeting.
  4. The preparation course and assessment.
  5. Approval by the Adoption Panel.
  6. Introductions to a child.
  7. Placement of the child with the applicants.
  8. Application for an adoption order successful

The initial contact the prospective applicant makes with the organisation is of critical importance. For successful exchange staff must handle enquiries efficiently and in a polite and informative manner. Due to Agency A's location prospective applicants could not easily walk in to the offices to talk face to face with a social worker. Rather applicants would telephone (71%) or write (22%), each medium requiring different responses.

The instantaneous nature of the telephone necessitates trained staff being available to deal with questions, whilst the reply to a letter, although not immediate, should be prompt.

The adoption process is designed to screen out unsuitable applicants, negative comments to one prospective applicant can be seen as reasonable and informative to another. Given this, the only appropriate course of action for staff is to be positive but honest.

It is unlikely that prospective applicants will affirm a decision to consider adoption in the face of an unduly negative representative of the agency.

The effectiveness of the screening out process is visible by the fact that 73% of prospective applicants drop out of the process either following the initial contact or after receiving an information pack. It could be argued that a certain percentage of suitable enquirers could be retained. Of the remaining 27% only 7% successfully adopt, with 8% of applicants dropping out of the process after being approved, having gone through the trauma of completing their "Form F's".

Applicants experience the process preceding the adoption panel as concurrent assessment and preparation. This education and assessment exemplifies the duality of the role of the agency as both aide and assessor. Once applicants reach the panel they are entirely dependent upon the agency. Applicants have no control and limited redress over this crucial stage of the process.

When questioned about this stage, respondents talk about their powerlessness and exclusion. However when asked whether they would like the option to be present at the panel meeting to represent their views, feelings are mixed.

Once the applicant is approved this feeling of helplessness is replaced by one of empowerment, not merely because of the legal entitlement to adopt, but rather the affirmation of the self as a good potential parent. Applicants talked about the different relationship they experienced with the agency after approval; a move away from assessor and assessed to one of partnership.

The applicants perception of approaching their final goal encourages an intensification of emotion, consequently this new relationship is often fraught. Minor delays in the process take on great significance for the applicant and the guiding hand of the Agency needs to be firm.

This is especially true when third parties enter into the process. Outside organisations such as Local Authorities are often in a more powerful position than the adoption agency. In such situations it is beneficial if the agency can work alongside the third party to ensure that the applicant is protected and service quality is ensured.

Above all the Agency needs to empathise with the applicant and communicate clearly the problems that the inclusion of third parties into the process may cause.

The post adoption support stage provides an opportunity for the adoption agency to regain an intimate relationship with the adopter. The Agency did not appear to be fully aware of the financial post adoption support provisions available from Local Authorities.

Provision of post adoption support is highly dependent upon the applicants assigned social worker. The applicant may not have originally been that keen on continuing contact with the worker following the issue of an adoption order. However, the applicant may encounter problems after the adoption order and may re-consider their decision to sever contact with the social worker. Unfortunately adopters may not wish to renege on their previous decision and are left feeling isolated.

The inclusion of the applicant in a child centred adoption service requires consideration of applicant needs beyond the core service that is provided. Adoption agencies are prone to viewing their raison d jtre as supplying a service to find and link suitable adopters with children. This approach fails to acknowledge the needs of the applicant. The peripheral elements of the service i.e. support groups, post adoption support, guest speakers and counselling, all of which Agency A offered; provided tangible benefits for the applicants and allowed appraisal of the service quality, ultimately benefiting the Agency through positive word of mouth.

Links: What Can An Adoption Agency Do To Attract Prospective Adopters

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The social worker is central to the adoption process. He/she is the representative of the Agency in the eyes of applicants and third parties alike, and the workers importance in terms of applicant's satisfaction of the assessment process cannot be under-estimated.

The social workers importance is complicated by inevitable variability in social worker performance. For some applicants the social worker is both aide and friend, whilst for others an evil monster of hideous proportions. The variability in the applicants perception of the social worker maybe largely explained by the contradictory roles the worker performs, namely that of aide and that of the assessor.

The manner in which this contradiction is worked has significant repercussions on applicants assessments of the adoption process. One applicant highlighted the position of power that the worker and agency occupy:

"I suppose there is always the fear that you will be turned down. I still thought we might be turned down. I think the power of the agency to actually put you through a process and then reject you is quite strongly felt."

The performance of the social worker provides a tangible figure on which the applicant can assess the adoption process. People assess a service, (and service personnel), through a process of expectation, confirmation/dis-confirmation. Given that the general lack of information search by applicants to Agency A prevented firm expectations forming, applicants may be assumed to have based norms gained from their experience with Local Authorities and infertility clinics. More direct expectations only formed when the applicant became more acquainted with Agency A's adoption process.

The respondents in the study of Agency A placed particularly high significance on reliability in the service. The requirement for consistency and dependability being notoriously difficult to satisfy where fallible humans are involved.

In the adoption process this is exacerbated further by the length of the process. Applicants place a considerable amount of trust in the social worker, laying out their lives on the table in front of the worker for supposedly dispassionate dissection.

Consequently a deep emotional attachment develops between worker and applicant. If or when this is broken the applicant is left demoralised.

Agency A had a high turnover of staff due to short term or temporary contracts, resulting in applicants possibly encountering several social workers during the course of their lengthy process. Many applicants found the adjustment from social worker to social worker difficult.

Particularly galling were the endless regurgitation of autobiographies, rebuilding of trusts and adjustments to new ways of doing things. These inconveniences became considerable burdens at a time when the emotional turmoil of the situation was itself sufficient to turn minor irritations into major crises. Applicants compared social worker to social worker, often ascribing a halo above the outgoing social worker for the new worker to aspire to.

The need for assurance was paramount for applicants, resulting in continual assessment and re-assessment of the competence, courtesy and credibility of the social worker.

Empathy was an essential part of a successful process, the applicant needed to feel that the worker understood their plight, was available (within reason) when needed, and crucially was able to communicate to them in a language that did not sound like technical babble.

The needs for responsiveness, involving practicalities such as replying to applicant letters promptly, and flexibility in the service delivery are often taken for granted in the adoption service. The length of the process and the child centred ethic are not geared to providing the applicant with a responsive service.

When social workers fail to be responsive, empathetic, reliable or equitable, the applicant is often blunt in their response:

"She was such a f*^$!^g b*^%h! I'm not the person to be picked on and she really had a go, she was just so b%^*^y and cold."

Link: Developing An Accessible Complaints Procedure

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The very narrow profile of adopters that this study found suggests opportunities for this Agency to pursue different segments of the population such as ethnic minorities, younger couples, single people and the working class, in order to widen it's applicant base.

In pursuance of these markets, research needs to be conducted to ascertain why these groups are not currently approaching the Agency to adopt. There seems little evidence that points towards the unsuitability of such groups as prospective adopters.

Adoption Agencies are in a position that requires the applicant to provide extensive information about themselves. This information although confidential can be used by the agency to analyse who applies, why they decide to adopt and how they approach the agency. Unfortunately Agency A had not fully utilised this information to target prospective applicants more effectively.

Agency A's reliance upon Local Authorities for professional referral can be minimised by targeting potential applicants prior to them contacting the respective Local Authority. Hence religious groups, infertility clinics, counselling services and local area health clinics could be usefully utilised here.

Due to the sensitivity of the topic the manner in which the channel is used is of paramount importance. Simply leaving posters or leaflets in an infertility clinic s waiting room would probably have negative repercussions. Rather, staff in these organisations need to be informed of the benefits adoption can offer certain people and these members of staff could act as censors ensuring that the message only gets through to those for whom it is appropriate. It could also be useful to strengthen existing referral channels by building partnerships and joint ventures where possible.

The lack of accurate general knowledge concerning adoption and the process on the part of applicants exacerbates the problems of intangibility that beset any service. Rectification of this is can be through suitably structured information, appealing to the differing segments.

A pro-active information campaign would raise awareness of the issues and processes surrounding adoption. It would provide potential applicants with more firmly established and reasonable expectations of the process, and thereby reducing the number of applicants who drop out of the process.

Information packs are provided at the beginning of the process but are often bulky and flood the applicant with information. In the sound-bite culture of the 1990 s aims would be better served by applicant friendly language, whose flow is staggered throughout the process.

I have suggested above that information should be made available to ensure that the expectations of the applicant are realistic. This information should be supported by the creation of a Charter.

A Charter provides the Agency with a benchmark upon which the service can be built with standards and procedures established which the social worker and applicant must observe. Effective Charters provide for an empowered applicant.

Providing an awareness of the nature and standard of the service that they can expect, along with methods of ensuring redress when the standard is not met or procedure not followed. A Charter should not, however, be an organisational straight jacket.

Flexibility in the service offering is essential in meeting the diverse needs of the applicants. Negative variability needs to be overcome, but that does not necessitate standardisation.

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Identifying service failure is central to the idea of retaining suitable applicants. Unfortunately it is also undeniably difficult because the definition of service failure rests with the applicant.

Prospective adopters vary in their willingness to complain, a complaint often being the first indication of service failure. However, this variability in complaint behaviour is skewed towards an unwillingness to complain due to the fear that the complaint will hinder their application.

The adoption agency needs to identify at the earliest opportunity applicant dissatisfaction in order to address the problem. Delay in identifying the problem reduces the ability of the agency to rescue service failure; the agency has to be aware that applicant dissatisfaction may be the result of actions or errors by the applicants themselves.

In the present study, where the agency identified service failure, or, acted swiftly and adequately to applicant complaints, applicant dissatisfaction was prevented from escalating. In several cases a successful response resulted in the applicant perceiving the agency more favourably than prior to the service failure.

Alternatively when the service failure was not quickly discovered by the agency and when they were slow to respond and/or provided an inadequate reaction, the applicants dissatisfaction spiralled until they dropped out of the process.

To overcome the reluctance of applicants to complain and to provide a formal internal complaints procedure a third party could be introduced into the applicant and social worker relationship.

The participation within the process of a third party with whom the applicants are familiar could also ensure a smoother change over between social workers, preventing a break in the chain of trust for the applicant.

The incoming social worker can also aid the retention of the chain of trust by spending additional time with the applicants and building a relationship prior to assessing them. Naturally the organisation should attempt to retain staff where possible to prevent the necessity of the applicant experiencing a change over of worker.

© Matthew Higgins, 1996-2004

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Matthew Higgins is currently a Doctoral Student and Marketing Tutor at Keele University, UK.
He is currently undertaking doctoral research in child adoption and marketing in the public sector.
Any comments relating to this article, or mere idle chatter(!) can be e-mailed to:

Matthew Higgins
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