Supportive Employment Experience

Participant Recruitment Strategies


As we explored in our learning guide on participant recruitment challenges, 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.

Common causes of recruitment challenges include external factors such as decreased unemployment, declining target population, and high competing wages. On the other hand, common internal root causes include ineffective communication, inconsistent programming, and insufficient referral partnerships.

This learning guide, the second in a series on participant recruitment, will explore some effective strategies to attempt to address these challenges.


Finding the “right fit” for your social enterprise

The specific target population employed by your social enterprise is a big part of what makes your social enterprise different than other businesses in the marketplace. Some social enterprises broadly define their target population to anyone with barriers to employment; all people experiencing poverty, for example. Whereas other social enterprises focus on particular target populations with particular barriers, such as homeless veterans. Sometimes this focus on a particular target population is required by certain funding sources.

However, there is a constant struggle between finding the right type of person for your social enterprise and finding enough people to keep your business going. Recruitment challenges only heighten this struggle and some social enterprises are tempted to broaden their target population served to include employing “anyone” with barriers, or barriers that are beyond what has been typically served by the social enterprise.

Many social enterprises already struggle with the difficulty of fitting their program to a wide range of target populations, and outcomes over time may reflect that struggle. Broadening your target population served to meet short-term staffing needs may cause significant challenges to an effective program design

This is also where social enterprises tend to start wiggling on termination policies, in order to keep enough people staffed. This is not advised as it can really impact the overall operations of the social enterprise, since keeping on people who are not a good fit may affect performance of the social enterprise and other employees.

For recruiting purposes, your social enterprise needs to determine whether it has a “wide” or “narrow” recruitment funnel? Does your social enterprise “screen in” or “screen out”?


Effective Recruitment Strategies

Recruitment strategy Examples
Build relationships with the right referral sources
  • Partner-focused marketing materials identify ideal candidate for referral partners
  • Appreciation luncheon for referral partners help manage partner relationships and stay top of mind for referral partners
  • Outreach staff and outreach video help community partners understand right candidate to refer
Expedite on-boarding to get people to work faster
  • <1 day intake and orientation allow for almost same day work; background checks happen as employees sit in orientation
  • “Braided” training and work model allows for continued education and technical training while meeting work demands
Simplify process of starting to work
  • Mobile on-boarding unit meets potential new workers at community agencies for expedited on-boarding and paperwork, rather than central HQ, which can be hard to reach
  • Rolling admissions (rather than a single cohort start date per year) catch more people looking for work when they need it, rather than being timing dependent
Fill slots as they open, rather than all at once
  • Staggering cohort start date opens half of slots at once, which is easy to fill than a full cohort

Messaging: Do it better and earlier

In this high-demand market for labor, it is essential for your social enterprise to clearly articulate its value throughout your messaging: from your marketing and outreach materials, all the way through into program on-boarding.

Effective messaging should focus on the difference between a job and a career, and emphasize your employee supports to attract people and make them understand that this will help them long term in their career development.

Remember: your reputation matters, whether amongst community partners or potential employees. When your reputation is tarnished or changed, a lot of work and time is required to change the perception.


Build relationships with the right referral sources

Building relationships and new referral partnerships can be an effective way to increase the reach of your current recruiting efforts. There are a variety of potential partners your social enterprise can partner with, including:

  • Community based organizations
  • Local Department of Corrections
  • Schools
  • Local health system
  • Other social enterprises

Make sure that the staff at these partners understand your social enterprise and the right candidates to refer. Tailoring your marketing materials for these partners can help ensure that ideal candidates are identified and referred to your social enterprise.

Maintaining relationships is also critical. For example, your social enterprise could host an appreciation luncheon for referral partners to help manage partner relationships and make sure your social enterprise stays top of mind for referral partners.


Foster word-of-mouth referrals

Former employees and graduates of your program can be great sources of new referrals. Encourage word-of-mouth referrals from current or recently exited participants. Some social enterprises use referral bonuses or other incentives to encourage participation and recruitment.


Simplify the process of starting to work

Addressing participant recruitment is not all about increasing the size of your funnel. Simplifying the process of starting to work can be an effective way to increase overall attrition into your program.

One way to simplify the process of starting to work is to expedite the on-boarding process. For example, your social enterprise could offer a one day (or less) intake and orientation, allowing for same-day work. If applicable, your social enterprise can conduct background checks as the prospective employees sit in orientation.


Meet employees where they are

Your social enterprise could investigate the potential for co-location with other organizations, such as SRO building owners or community centers to directly communicate with potential candidates. Recruiting people where they are receiving other services can also be an effective way to associate your social enterprise with other supports. This, in turn, helps you articulate your value proposition beyond employment (as discussed above).

Another potentially effective strategy is the use of a mobile on-boarding unit that meets potential new workers at community agencies for expedited on-boarding and paperwork. This is instead of conducting all intake at the social enterprise’s headquarters, which can be hard to reach and cause attrition.


Consider timing

Developing demand schedules can help alleviate but it’s hard to predict the kind of worker you’ll need. Additionally, timing may not be responsive when you have seasonality.

Some social enterprises operate with a cohort model, which can cause challenges since potential employees may be looking for immediate work and may not wait until the start of your next cohort.

If this is the case with your social enterprise, you may want to consider rolling admissions, rather than a single cohort start date per year, to catch more people looking for work when they need it, rather than being dependent on cohort timing. If the cohort model is integral to your programming model, perhaps consider staggering cohort start dates or opens half of slots at once, which is easy to fill than a full cohort.


Stay competitive

In times of low-unemployment, your social enterprise will be competing with other businesses for employees. High competing wages may reduce the attractiveness of employment opportunities at your social enterprise, so it is a good practice to assess wages or other incentives (bonuses, gifts, etc.) offered by comparable entry-level employers in your region.

If you find that your social enterprise is offering lower wages than your competitors, consider increasing pay rate and/or hours offered, within reason, to demonstrate competitiveness compared to other job opportunities.



In our next learning guide in this series, we will share a case study on a social enterprise that conducted a root cause analysis of their recruitment challenges and the programmatic changes they enacted to address these challenges.

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