Incentive vs Coercion

When is an incentive just an incentive, and when does that nice thing you offered become coercion…even if it was not intended in that way?

You do a survey of people that are experiencing homelessness or maybe a PiT Count where you offer a gift card or granola bar – is that incentive to participate or a veiled (and unintentional) coercive strategy to increase participation rates?

You do street outreach and offer a sandwich, socks and coffee to people – is that incentive to engage with you or a coercive strategy to get people to speak with you?

You offer a program that provides mental health counselling and offer a bus pass for program participants to get to their appointment – is that incentive to attend more appointments or a form of coercion to get people to address their mental health issues?

I could go on. Not only are these the sorts of things debated within our industry, they are also subject to quite a bit of scholarly debate. Ultimately, you need to consider the ethical motivation of offering anything at all, how it aligns to what you are trying to achieve in the specific piece of work you are engaged upon, and think critically through various questions:

  1. Is the person that you are providing the “thing of value” (coffee, bus pass, granola bar, etc.) dependent upon you for services, to access other services (you are the conduit for referrals, applications, providing proof that they are engaged with you, etc.), or to meet their daily needs? If so, you are most likely engaged in coercion rather than incentive.
  2. Does the “thing of value” have to be large in order to get people to consent to participate in the service or survey you are offering? For example, does a $10 meal voucher increase the likelihood of participation over a $2 coffee voucher? If so, you are more likely engaged in coercion rather than incentive.
  3. Is the “thing of value” intended to get the person to do something they do not want to do or which they would consider demeaning or harmful? For example, the person hates psychiatrists but agrees to participate in the mental health programming with a psychiatrist because they get a bus pass, and without the bus pass they would have no other means of obtaining transportation to meet all other basic shopping and service needs throughout the city. If this sort of thing is happening, you are more likely engaged in coercion rather than incentive.
  4. Is it possible to provide the same service or opportunity or survey without providing a “thing of value”? If not (or if response rates or participation rates were to be so low that the service or survey would have no use), then you are likely engaged in coercion rather than incentive.
  5. Does the provider of the “thing of value” have more to gain financially if there are a greater number of participants in a program or survey? For example, an outreach provider gets more money if they have a higher number of contacts, or a surveyor is more likely to have a contract renewed to do a future PiT Count survey along with the count if the response rate is high. If these types of incentives exist for the provider of the “thing of value” then there is a greater risk of coercion for the participant.
  6. Is there any evidence of “coercion by carrot” in offering the “thing of value”? In other words, does the value of the thing (economic value, utility in meeting day to day needs, etc.) make it very difficult for the person to say no, thereby resulting in agreement to participate in a program or survey? Is there consent truly voluntary when the thing offered has such a benefit to their well-being? For example, if the person has no other way of getting clean dry clothes easily, and you offer some as part of your overall outreach service in exchange for them agreeing to work with you, that is coercion rather than incentive.


Simply, an incentive should encourage someone to voluntarily participate because they feel the participation is in their best interest. Coercion is persuasive where there are potential consequences for non-participation that are not in the best interest of the person that is engaged. With each time you consider offering something to someone – even when you start with thinking it is an incentive – take time to pause, reflect and be sure all that you are doing is in their best interest.

About Iain De Jong

Leader. Edutainer. Coach. Consultant. Professor. Researcher. Blogger. Do-gooder. Potty mouth. Positive disruptor. Relentless advocate for social justice. Comedian. Dad. Minimalist. Recovering musician. Canadian citizen. International jetsetter. Living life in jeans and a t-shirt. Trying really hard to end homelessness in developed countries around the world, expand harm reduction practices, make housing happen, and reform the justice system. Driven by change, fuelled by passion. Winner of a shit ton of prestigious awards, none of which matter unless change happens in how we think about vulnerability, marginality, and inclusion.

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