Recruiting New Participants

Eight Steps to Full Enrollment

Group of young adults sitting on steps looking at a tablet
By Samantha Wulfsohn, Jennifer Miller Gaubert, Donna Wharton-Fields

Many programs grapple with the challenge of recruiting eligible participants. Finding the right person to take part in a program at the right time is a complicated task that may require more staff time than anticipated. MDRC field liaisons and the Center for Applied Behavioral Science have spent years gathering evidence about the best recruitment strategies for a broad range of programs. In this post, we share insights from our experience on the ground to share what works — and what doesn’t — when it’s time to recruit participants.

Know Your Target Audience

  • Understand the population you’re trying to reach and determine what your program has to offer them. Here are some key questions to consider:

    • Who is a typical participant? What services would be of interest to them?

    • When can they participate? What barriers — logistical, practical, emotional — might prevent participants from enrolling in the program or attending an event?

  • Connect with your target audience and seek their input. The feedback you receive will help refine your recruitment approach.

  • Organize participants by traits and customize information and approaches for each group.

  • Use simple prose to keep your materials at a fourth to sixth grade reading level.

Establish and Train a Recruitment Team

  • Assign responsibility for recruitment tasks. Is there a dedicated staff member for recruitment, or can everyone help? What role does each staff member play?

  • Train recruiters. They should be well-versed in explaining eligibility criteria and have an engaging and practiced “pitch” that focuses on how participants will benefit from a program’s services.

Get the Word Out

  • Assign staff members to specific recruitment strategies and keep a checklist. Use varied forms of communication.

  • Ask participants to distribute program flyers and promote the program among family and friends.

  • Set deadlines for new enrollments and send multiple reminders. To learn more about the power of these and other behavioral strategies, see MDRC’s Center for Applied Behavioral Science.

  • Use social media to help your team build a cohesive program identity that can be quickly disseminated to a wide range of prospective participants. Social media outreach should complement other methods of recruitment, not replace them. Flyers, phone calls, text messages, and emails are still necessary.

Connect with Referral Partners

  • Understand your referral partners. What does their typical day look like? Why might they refer someone to your program? What are their objectives?

  • Make a detailed plan for optimizing relationships with referral partners:

    • Decide whether relationships will require a formal memorandum of understanding or be informal.

    • Assign one staff member to serve as a central contact for your referral partners.

    • Schedule regular check-in calls, emails, or texts to assess what’s working well and what’s not.

Set Realistic Recruitment Goals and Track Your Progress

  • Develop goals that account for the cyclical nature of enrollment. See this In Practice post for more on enrollment.

  • Use MIS or other data systems to track your efforts and regularly review data.

Put Your Recruitment Plan in Writing

  • Writing out your recruitment plan helps organize multifaceted recruitment activities, and also helps program managers communicate goals, core tasks, and timelines to their recruitment team.

  • Establish a budget before recruitment activities begin.

Review Progress Regularly

A “learn-do-reflect” model encourages staff to analyze their experiences, identify what works (and what doesn’t), and sharpen strategies along the way.

Reward Successes

Acknowledge the hard work of recruitment staff and referral partners. Gestures of appreciation don’t have to be elaborate. Think gift certificates to Starbucks, coffee and cookie breaks for your team, or a jar of candy or a bouquet of flowers for a referral partner’s front desk when you next drop off flyers.

About InPractice

The InPractice blog series highlights lessons from MDRC’s work with programs, featuring posts on recruiting participants and keeping them engaged, supporting provider teams, using data for program improvement, and providing services remotely.

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