The importance of recruitment in engagement – an example

There were some problems with formatting that I couldn’t fix so I’ve re-done the post here

Recruitment is an important part of engaging families in service delivery: excellent programs only work if families show up or are engaged in some other way. Successfully engaging families involves much more than advertising and promotion and, when families are not engaged, services need to look at their own practice and operations rather than simply labelling some families as being “hard to reach” (Cortis, Katz, & Patulny, 2009; McDonald, 2010).

The importance of recruitment was driven home to me in a recent two-day Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshop I helped facilitate. We were delighted to have seventeen people register for the workshop. We felt we had reached the participants that we wanted to target. Some of them had been told to do a relevant course by a court or by Probation and Parole. Some were referred by a drug or family service, including some who were wanting to regain (or improve) access to their children. Others wanted to improve their relationship with their partner.

On the day of the workshop, however, only seven people showed up and only two people came to the second day. Clearly we have a problem.

Advertising and promotion do not appear to be a major problem as we had plenty of people registered. We like a maximum of 12-15 participants but can take up to 20. Word had got out and there is clearly interest in the workshops. We do, however, need to look at our recruitment process so that we can address the high number of no-shows and explore why people did not complete both days.

We need to rethink how we recruit and engage participants. There are some structural features of the workshop that could make recruitment harder. AVP workshop need to be at least 18 hours and we have been trialling workshops over two consecutive Sundays from 9 am to 6:30 pm. This is a big commitment, especially on a Sunday. In addition, public transport to the University (where we held the workshop) is worse on a Sunday so some people had trouble getting there (particularly for a 9 o’clock start). We need to reconsider the location (even though it is a great venue) and how we structure the workshop. Would a Saturday be better (because people who work during the week at least get the Sunday to recover from the long day)? Would it be better to have shorter days spread over three weeks or even to spread it over six of seven weeks? Or would it be better to have an intensive weekend so that it isn’t spread out as much?

We also want to think about how we engage participants prior to the workshop. How can we build on people’s initial motivation to enrol and make sure they are clear about the relevance (or not) of the workshop for them? At times, this process may lead people to decide that the workshop is not relevant, and that is fine. A more intensive engagement process before the workshop would also start building our relationship with participants and help us make sure we shape the workshop to the particular group. (AVP workshops are quite flexible and do not have a set agenda.)

The workshops are free and we wonder if this means people are less committed to showing up. Some people have suggested that a small fee could make people more likely to attend, and one person suggested we try charging a holding fee (e.g., $20) which gets refunded at the end of the workshop.

Once people attended the first day, we then have to consider why five out the seven did not return the following week. We have spoken to most of the people who didn’t come back for the second day and most people had quite legitimate reasons for not making it. One had contacted us after the first day and said he had decided it wasn’t really what he was looking for. One had to come from a nearby rural town, had missed his bus and he had very few other transport options. One had the opportunity to see her daughter (which did not often happen) so, understandably, made this a priority. All but the one who had told us it wasn’t what he was looking for, still wanted to complete the workshop. This suggests that the content wasn’t the main issue, but we still need to think about how we can make changes to the content or process to increase the likelihood of people completing the workshop.

Getting families through the door (or letting us through their door) is a crucial part of engaging families. There can be a range of barriers to successfully engaging vulnerable or marginalised families (Centre for Community Child Health, 2010; McDonald, 2010) and services need to reflect on their own practice rather than seeing the problem as being with the families.

We have a great deal of thinking to do before our next workshop.

If you liked this post please follow my blog, and you might like to look at:

  1. Building relationships
  2. Some good articles/links – engaging ‘hard to reach’ families
  3. Playgroups as a foundation for working with hard to reach families
  4. What are Alternatives to Violence Project (AVP) workshops?
  5. Facilitating workshops – creating a container
  6. Strengths-based measurement

If you find any problems with the blog, (e.g., broken links or typos) I’d love to hear about them. You can either add a comment below or contact me via the Contact page.

Centre for Community Child Health. (2010). Engaging marginalised and vulnerable families. Centre for Community Child Health Policy Brief, 18, 1-4. Available from

Cortis, N., Katz, & Patulny, R. (2009). Engaging hard-to-reach families and children: Stronger families and communities strategy 2004–2009. Canberra: Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs. Available from

McDonald, M. (2010). Are disadvantaged families “hard to reach”? Engaging disadvantaged families in child and family services Australian Institute of Family Studies. CFCA Practice Sheet. Retrieved from Australian Institute of Family Studies website:

About Graeme Stuart

Lecturer (Family Action Centre, Newcastle Uni), blogger (Sustaining Community), Alternatives to Violence Project facilitator, environmentalist, father. Passionate about families, community development, peace, sustainability.
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