Key take-aways

  • Find participants who are interested in your message and focus on them.
  • Engage with community leaders to understand how to target those audiences.  Make sure your message will attract targeted audiences to attend events.
  • The ice cream effect: plan social events as initial outreach efforts. Social events can motivate attendance and spark interest in your project.
  • Work within existing social structures and relationships. Collaborate with community leaders to recruit participants.


We found that one of the best forms of engagement was to work with community partners to find relationships and social structures that already exist, and how to take advantage of this already existing knowledge when recruiting.  Beyond that, participants were either already interested or not interested our workshops and events.It was best to get the interested participants on board early and build interest and enthusiasm for the project.  For instance, at the Champaign sites, seven participants who expressed interest in digital photography were each given cameras and allowed time to photograph their community with the promise that their photos would be printed out for them. These participants can become cheerleaders for the project and encourage others to join in, which happened with the seven digital photographers in Champaign who quickly became engaged and enthusiastic about the project.

While it is important to engage enthusiastic participants, it is also still important to engage those who do not seem as interested right from the start, because they could become passionate participants further along in the process. And even if students aren’t interested in participating directly in the project, you may find that they are interested in sharing their stories from the role of an interviewee.If time and resources allow, it is ideal to reach out to interested and disinterested participants in hopes of retaining as many as possible.  Increased number of participants over time will ultimately help make engagement efforts sustainable.

It is important to also think about how the people you are hoping to recruit will interpret your message. Craft your message in a way that will make your community want to attend your events. Put yourself in their position, and figure out the best way to frame the message for them. Once you figure out the message you want to advertise, put it in a visible area. If you make fliers, use large letters and include pictures, so that people will notice event information from a quick glance as they pass by.

Spread your message to as many people as possible to get a lot of people to attend your events. Consider hosting a social event, such as an ice cream social if you are targeting children, or a barbecue for adults. People love free food. Once there is a group of people at your event, make your message clear. Have a quick couple of sentences to clearly describe your project or a simple flier that they can take home. Then, actively engage the people attending to find out if they might be interested in working with you in the future. Once you find people who are interested, work closely with them to make sure they get as much benefit out of your activities as possible. Then they will probably stay engaged over the long term.

Suggestions for future work

  • Deliberately recruit groups who are already doing the kind of work you want to promote (e.g., writer’s groups, local history groups, neighborhood watch). This method has been used successfully by the St. Louis public access TV station, KETC.
  • Deliberately recruit from complementary communities.  Find people from different communities and have them develop similar projects to facilitate future partnerships
  • Brainstorm creative, engaging marketing ideas for events.
  • Pursue additional sources to find information on the audience you plan to recruit.

Case studies

Overview:  East St. Louis projects worked with two partners in two different ways.  The first was to reach out through already existing channels to select participants who would potentially be interested in the workshop.  The second was to work with participants until a group had identified themselves as interested.  The reasoning behind these different approaches was defined by the needs and setup of the two different programs.

In Champaign, our first attempt at running a newsletter class at Salem Baptist Church brought in zero people. We realized that one of the reasons might have been that the flier we posted on the church bulletin to advertise the workshop didn’t have a clear and engaging message. We redesigned the flier with the words, “LEARN TO WRITE A NEWSLETTER” at the top in big print, and when we ran the program again it was significantly more successful with four community participants.

Example Flyers

Storytelling Workshop Flyer

Social Media Workshop Flyer

Newsletter Workshop Flyer 

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