How “Cohorts” Change Lives, Where Other Programs Fail

four hands


Archetypical American heroes are often loners:  The single sheriff shoots it out with a band of bad guys, the scrappy rags-to-riches business person climbs that ladder solo, the musician whose best friend is a bottle eventually makes it big.  These figures have some admirable traits, but in real life, going it alone is more often a formula for failure, not success.  No matter how talented you are, you will be better with the example, community, help and even challenges that come from others.  In East Palo Alto, teams of single mothers are changing their lives dramatically for the better with the help of Able Works, a non-profit organization.  Able Works uses a “cohort’ model that has produced exceptional results.  (Full disclosure:  I was so impressed with the work that they are doing this way that I have joined the Board of Directors.)


Think “team”.  But it is a team that takes a journey together. The young mothers sign up to be part of a team that simply meets once per week for an hour for a year.  Each week they address a particular aspect of being a healthy and successful person / employee /mother.  They each set individual goals, but they explore how to meet those goals together.  The results of the pilot program were stunning:

  •  50% increased their wages or salaryupward arrows sml
  •  75% of women enrolled in college
  • 75% of families moved into affordable, safe housing
  • 75% of women opened an IDA savings account
  • Average increase in savings  $600/person
  • Average decrease in debt $750/person
  • 100% reported increased self-confidence and hope for future

Building on that success, three cohorts are being run this year.

Why do cohorts work so well?

The results of the AbleWomen program reminded me of the reported results of the Family Independence Initiative, which saw the same kinds of success when teams of families committed to meeting together (see this post for that story).   The “magic” of the cohort approach seems to be some combination of these effects:

  • Once people see that their issues are not unique, they seem less daunting
  • When one person makes a breakthrough, their example creates a tangible roadmap for some of the others in the cohort
  • Peer group motivation, support and advice
  • As members of the group make improvements in their lives, there is some healthy pressure on the others to make comparable progress.


 The women in the “LiveAble: Women” program are motivated to become self-sufficient.  Clearly, they make impressive near term gains; but they also build strengths that promise even bigger gains in the future.  One of the women entered college for the first time as a result of participating and was nervous about that challenge.  She got a high grade on one of the first tests and observed “I guess I am smarter than I thought” Priceless.

Two Other Success Factors

The cohort leader is an accomplished woman who lived through the struggles faced by the participants.  There is natural understanding, respect, and sensitivity to their culture:  Therefore, there is trust.

Precise case management (credit counseling, goal setting, educational and career planning, leads to affordable housing, etc.).  These services are often available in the community, but they can be much more specific when the situation and goals of each woman get so clearly defined.



We are social animals.  In the face of economic or business challenges, a challenging,  inspirational and supportive team experience produces outstanding outcomes.  It is not mysterious.  What is mysterious is why this powerful formula is so infrequently used.



If you are inspired to contribute to Able Works:  This is their site.

Credit for image of arrows.

Categories: All Posts, For Mothers, For Social Service Organizations

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