Can Investing More in Social Interventions Make Them Less Effective?

Dec 10, 2013, 10:07 ET from American Marketing Association

CHICAGO, Dec. 10, 2013 /PRNewswire-USNewswire/ -- A growing number of non-profit organizations are implementing social interventions to bring about change and improve the lives of people in subsistence markets. However, we know little about whether such interventions work or not. There are glaring examples of failed social interventions. For example, UNICEF's effort at changing non-sanitary behaviors in Ghana and Mali was a dismal failure. The Red Cross received considerable negative press for its futile attempt at providing earthquake disaster relief in Haiti.


Professors Nita Umashankar at Georgia State University and Raji Srinivasan at the University of Texas in Austin study this question: why do some social interventions succeed while others fail? Building on ideas in the newcomer adjustment literature, they argue that characteristics of the person and the social intervention influence the effectiveness of the intervention, which they define as "adjustment" to the changes proposed by the intervention.

The article appears in a recent issue of Journal of Public Policy & Marketing published by the American Marketing Association.

The researchers collected data on an education-based social intervention aimed at improving employment opportunities for the adult-children of sex workers and people rescued from sex trafficking in India. They surveyed 90 people from the sex worker community who completed the intervention across four educational centers in India.

Umashankar and Srinivasan find that under certain circumstances, greater exposure to an intervention can in fact decrease a person's adjustment to it. For instance, if a person relies heavily on her peers outside the intervention for social and emotional support, then increasing contact hours lowers her adjustment. On the flip side, if a person heavily on peers within the intervention, then increasing contact hours strengthens her adjustment, shedding light on circumstances where increasing exposure can lead to positive outcomes. Umashankar notes, "A heartening finding is that increasing a person's adjustment to an intervention not only helps her cope with the changes urged by the intervention but also helps her achieve positive life outcomes, which in this case, include employment outside the sex trade."

Social interventions must be designed to consider the needs of the marginalized people targeted for the interventions, including: (1) how much time and effort is required to participate in the intervention; more time and effort are not always better (2) how to accommodate cohorts of participants to decrease the risk of stigmatization, and (3) how to engage internal peers and suppress the influence of external peers for long interventions. Overall, for resource-constrained non-profit organizations, these findings offer some guidance to effectively stretch their resources across more programs with greater outreach.

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