The Challenges of Recruitment

By Sarah Hokanson

The Bottom-Line First: Recruiting lower income couples for relationship education is difficult. As relationship educators, we need to be intentional in planning for and carrying out effective recruitment strategies. This will require us to allocate more resources to our recruitment efforts. This study outlines challenges and successes practitioners have experienced in recruiting lower income couples.

Recruiting for relationship education (RE) classes is often more difficult than we anticipate. We spend the majority of our resources developing curriculum and teaching classes, but none of this work matters if we don’t have participants attending our classes. Oftentimes we want to target at-risk populations with our programs. However, these populations can be especially difficult to recruit and retain in classes. High stress, high mobility, low-income couples have unique challenges that prevent them from having the time and resources to commit to attending RE classes consistently.

In a recent study,[1] researchers interviewed 14 couple relationship education program managers about their challenges and successes related to recruitment and retention of participants for RE courses. These project managers each had federal grants to support their programs.

Here are some of the significant recruitment challenges they experienced:

  • Planning effectively. Often, relationship educators would not have an effective plan – or or any plan – on how they would recruit participants. It is important for adequate time and money to be spent on the recruitment of participants. Relationship educators had many concerns including what to teach, where to teach, etc., but it was also important for them to consider who they would teach and how they would find these people to teach.
  • Finding consistent staff and locations. A constant shifting of locations and facilitators can create a more confusing, less effective experience for participants. Having a consistent learning environment can help in the retention of participants.
  • Recruiting target groups. Relationship educators wanted to target at-risk groups, but these are the hardest groups to recruit. One particular struggle with targeting this group was getting couples to come together. Often female partners came to classes but struggled to bring their male partners. Research suggets that participating as couples generally results in better relationship outcomes.[2]

Here are some recruitment successes they experienced:

  • Leveraging community networks. There are a number of community organizations that already work with at-risk populations. Relationship educators used these organizations to find clients who would be interested in their RE classes.
  • Minimizing barriers. It is important to understand the needs of participants and the barriers that keep them from attending RE classes. Some relationship educators found success in providing babysitting, a meal, etc., at classes to help minimize those barriers.
  • Word of mouth. The best recruitment strategy is word of mouth. Having former program participants talk to their peers about their positive experiences was found to be a good way to breakdown ignorance and stigma regarding CRE.
  • Consider venues and atmosphere. Trusted organizations are already embedded in the community. Relationship educators held classes at these organizations that people already trusted and interacted with. They also focused on creating an atmosphere that people would want to come to, especially men who are often underrepresented in RE courses. One way they created an atmosphere to incentivize male attendance was having male and female teams as facilitators and recruiters to help men feel more comfortable in these settings.

Using the interviews, the researchers created a model of program recruitment development that they called “7 Steps to Maximizing Programming for Vulnerable Populations”:

  1. Plan for recruitment processes right from the start… especially program resources dedicated to recruitment.
  2. Get buy-in early and at top levels of program, community, and human service area/connected systems.
  3. Identify your own particular contextual niches as specifically as possible, at all levels (micro to macro).
  4. Match program personnel with appropriate skills to maximize capacity of both staff and recruitment tasks.
  5. Expand potential capacity by attaching recruiting to all other programmatic tasks
  6. Find out early in your program timeline specific details about target populations… not just where they are, but what has meaning for them.
  7. Reward staff for recruitment successes; buy-in must come first from your own program.

In summary, we need to give more attention and resources to recruitment in our RE endeavors. This requires us to know our target populations, what will work for them, and how to reach them. Planning and allocating resources to recruitment is critical for our efforts in relationship education.

1] Roberts, K. M., Patterson, J. L., Burr, B. K., Jefferson, S., & Hubler, D. S. (2019). “We thought it would be easy”: Recruitment challenges, successes and best practices for low-income couple populations. Marriage & Family Review, 55, 277-297. doi://

[2] Carlson, R. G., Rappleyea, D. L., Daire, A. P., Harris, S. M., & Liu, X. (2017). The effectiveness of couple and individual relationship education: Distress as a moderator. Family Process, 56, 91-104.