Supportive Employment Experience

Participant Recruitment Challenges


Despite the ongoing need for employment social enterprises to offer job opportunities to people with barriers to employment, many social enterprises are currently facing challenges recruiting participants to work. This comes at a time of broad economic growth, meaning many social enterprises are growing their businesses at a rate that outpaces their ability to recruit participants to complete the work.

There are many reasons why a social enterprise may struggle to recruit participants. It is imperative for social enterprises to discover and address the root causes behind the struggle of finding the “right fit” participants. This learning guide, the first in a series on participant recruitment, will cover some common root causes and how to identify them within your social enterprise.


Identifying Root Causes

For any issue facing your social enterprise, whether recruitment challenges or otherwise, it is important to identify not only the problem itself, but  the underlying forces that are causing the problem. Conducting a “root cause analysis” will not only help your social enterprise identify what is causing recruitment challenges, but also distinguish between symptoms and the causes themselves.

For example, a social enterprise that is experiencing lower than usual number of participants has noticed that they have had low attendance for recruitment events recently. It would be a mistake for this social enterprise to say that the low attendance is the “root cause” of the recruitment challenges. Instead, they should explore what may be causing the low attendance for the events. What once looked like a cause, may turn out to be merely a symptom.

Like a toddler repeatedly asking “why?”, social enterprises should always question each step along the way, until the true root causes are identified. Once identified, it is worth framing root causes into two categories: internal and external.

External root causes are the exogenous forces that impact your social enterprise’s ability to recruit participants and are beyond the control of your social enterprise – low unemployment rates, for example. On the other hand, internal root causes are specific to your social enterprise that may be causing recruitment challenges – ineffective communication, for example.

In the next section, we will review some common root causes that REDF has identified as causing recruitment challenges. Before we get started, it is worth emphasizing that each social enterprise is different: different industries, different target populations, different models, and different locations. What follows shouldn’t be a substitute for your social enterprise investigating the root causes unique to it’s own operations. Instead, it should provide some high level themes which can serve as a starting point.

External Root Causes

External root causes are the exogenous forces that impact your social enterprise’s ability to recruit participants and are beyond the control of your social enterprise. It is worth noting that just because a root cause is external, does not necessarily mean that your social enterprise has no ability to do anything about it. It just means that the underlying cause is beyond your social enterprise’s control.

Through its work with employment social enterprises, REDF has found some common external root causes for recruitment challenges:

  1. Decreased unemployment
  2. Declining target population
  3. High competing wages

Decreased Unemployment

The United States is currently experiencing a period of low unemployment. This means that the number of people who are not working, as a percentage of the total workforce (everyone who is working or wants to work), is low.

In times of low unemployment, people who are looking for work may have the ability to choose among a number of available jobs. For social enterprises, this means competing directly with other employers for workers. Naturally, this could cause recruitment challenges for social enterprises. Low unemployment and competition for workers does not mean, however, that social enterprise serves no purpose in these times, as other employers don’t offer the wrap-around support services that help people with barriers to employment succeed in the workforce long-term.

To see if low levels of unemployment may be causing recruitment issues for your social enterprise, assess trends in the rates of unemployment in the area in which your social enterprise operates. The Bureau of Labor Statistics publishes monthly and annual reports on employment and unemployment statistics by geographic region on their website.

Declining Target Population

Another external cause could be a decline in the number of the target population your social enterprise serves. While this is obviously desirable overall, it does mean that your social enterprise will have to work harder to reach those people still in need.

Depending on the target population your social enterprise serves, researching statistics and indicators from your region can help to determine whether or not a decline in target population may be causing recruitment challenges for your social enterprise. For example, if your social enterprise serves people experiencing homelessness, research the homelessness rates in your area. Or if your social enterprise serves opportunity youth, you may want to look at high school graduation rates in your area.

If you find that declining a target population might be causing recruitment challenges, you may want to explore new to ways to target potential participants, or reassess or develop new partnerships to reach those still in need. To learn more on how to do so, we will cover effective recruitment strategies in our next learning guide.

High Competing Wages

Another common external cause is high competing wages in the area in which your social enterprise is located. High competing wages may reduce the attractiveness of employment opportunities at your social enterprise. It is a good practice to assess wages or other incentives (bonuses, gifts, etc.) offered by comparable entry-level employers in your region.

Like unemployment statistics, the Bureau of Labor Statistics also produces reports on local wages by job characteristics and industry. The Bureau also produces Modeled Wage Estimates of the average hourly wages based on job characteristics and geographical location. You may also be able to find comparable wages offered by entry-level employers by looking at job postings. Assessing comparable wages will allow you to determine whether wage increases are necessary to increase competitiveness and, if so, the level of increase that is required.


Internal Root Causes

Internal root causes are those causes that are specific to and within the control of your social enterprise. Some common internal root causes for recruitment challenges include:

  1. Ineffective communication
  2. Inconsistent programming
  3. Insufficient referral partnerships.

Ineffective Communication

Lack of effective communication of your program value may be discouraging participants. Determine whether your staff are highlighting the value to participants effectively. Add more specific information to marketing materials to clearly state your social enterprise’s value proposition to participants.

Inconsistent Programming

Similar to ineffective communication, inconsistent knowledge of participant responsibilities amongst staff creates confusion for participants regarding work expectations. Assess the degree of consistency in program staff knowledge and make the necessary adjustments to present a clear, uniform set of expectations and materials to participants.

Insufficient Referral Partnerships

Finally, insufficient referral partnerships may be impeding a consistent flow of new participants. Social enterprises often need stable referral partnerships that understand the model. It can be difficult to build these relationships and come to formal agreements. To remedy this, you should survey the field of current and potential referral partners to bolster participant referral pipeline. Establish contact with potential new referral partners and deepen relationships with existing referral partners (perhaps via appreciation days or lunches).



As we’ve explored in this learning guide, many social enterprises are currently facing challenges recruiting participants to work despite the ongoing need for employment social enterprises to offer job opportunities to people with barriers to employment. It is imperative for social enterprises to discover and address the root causes behind the struggle of finding the “right fit” participants.

Since each social enterprise is different – serving different target populations, operating in different industries, and located in different areas – your social enterprise will need to address the following questions:

  • What are the root causes – both internal and external – that may be causing recruitment challenges?
  • What are some changes that your social enterprise can implement to address these causes?
  • What are the resources needed to implement the changes?
  • Which changes does your social enterprise want to prioritize?
  • Who will own the implementation of selected changes and on what timeline?
  • What metrics will your social enterprise begin, or continue, to track in order to ensure that additional recruitment challenges are spotted?

In our next learning guide to be released in August 2019, we will share some best practices for effective participant recruitment.

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