Search form

Learn how to determine which methods of contacting potential recruits works best.


  • Why is it important to contact potential members?

  • What are the methods for contacting potential members?

  • What method should you use to contact potential members?

It's now time for you to reach out to potential members --to put your contact list into action (for how to develop a contact list, see Identifying Potential Members in all Sectors of the Community). Now you should be able to take all the names you have patiently and systematically accumulated from the different sectors of the community and to start making some actual membership contacts.

Are you ready? You may be as ready as you're ever going to be. We're just about to start. But first, a little background.

Why is it important to contact potential participants?

It's important to contact new members simply because they are usually not going to walk through the door, or show up uninvited, though that can happen. Normally, they're not going to come to you. You'll have to go to them. To put it plainly, most new members for your group or organization will need to be recruited. The main question in this section is "How should I recruit them?"

Actually, there are two separate questions here. One deals with the method of your contact. That is, what form, or approach, should you use to contact and recruit new members? And the other deals with the content of your contact. That is, what points should your message convey? Let's take up these two questions in turn.

What are the methods for contacting potential members?

When you contact members, there are at least three basic methods to choose from:

  • You can meet them face-to-face
  • You can call them on the phone
  • You can write them a letter

There are other methods, too -- you could send a fax, or an e-mail message. You could send a fact sheet, flyer, or brochure. But for now, we'll focus on the three main methods above.

What method should you use to contact potential members?

There are advantages to each method, and some drawbacks too. Here's what we mean:

Face-to-face contact

Our experience is that personal contact works best. Research findings back this up. The more personal the contact, the greater your likelihood of success. A face-to-face meeting is more likely to be successful than a phone call, and a phone call is more likely to be productive than a letter.

Does this mean you should make face-to-face contact in every single case? Not necessarily. This is because:

  • Personal contact, especially face-to-face contact, takes time. Suppose you want to have a meeting: it takes time to set up the meeting (assuming you are arranging one in advance), it takes time to travel to the meeting, and it takes time to meet. You may simply not have that time to give for each potential member.
  • Personal contact is not always possible. The person you want to meet may not be available to see you, or frankly not be interested in seeing you. This is especially true if your potential member has a highly-visible or important position, and if your group has low visibility in the community or is unknown to your target.
  • Personal contact may be less necessary when you are asking your target person to do something small --to agree to be listed as a sponsor, for example, or to make a small contribution. These are "passive" forms of membership, rather than "active" ones. The smaller the request, or the less involving it is, the less intensive the contact need be.

Telephone contact

The telephone is quick and easy. You can dial seven digits in under five seconds. You (and your prospective member) don't have to travel --you can sit right where you are. You can engage in two-way dialogue, just as in a face-to-face meeting. You can listen and respond to emotional tone, not just verbal content, by sensing changes in voice pitch and inflection. And you can get your business done promptly.

These are all major advantages. But:

  • It may be hard to reach your target person. In many settings, the chances of your connecting on the first try are small. When you call, your potential member is likely to be-- "in a meeting...," "out to lunch...," "on another line...," "away from the desk...," "out of the office...," "on vacation....," or "just stepped out from a moment...." This is a modern fact of life. So the caller must be prepared for one or more rounds of missed connections and possible mild mutual annoyance before contact is made.
  • When you do connect, the target person may not be giving the same attention and consideration to your call as in a face-to-face meeting. He or she may be unprepared to listen, or distracted by other events in home or office (a project deadline; a baby crying). Sometimes --another fact of life-- you could get put on hold, as other calls come in.
  • A phone call usually can't build as strong a connection as a face-to-face meeting. Membership comes from connections made, and connection-building takes time. Meetings allow that time; phone calls usually don't. Some nonverbal information --facial expression, body language --is also lost over the phone, which can further limit relationship development.

Contact by letter

Letter and print contacts, on the other hand, have distinct advantages. While a good membership recruitment letter takes time to write, it can sometimes express what you want to say better than speech (because you have taken the time to write it). And once the letter is written, the basic content can be used again and again. You can generate a lot of letters in little time. And from the recipient's point of view, the letter can be read at leisure, and kept on file for future reference.

On the other hand:

  • Even the best letters are not as personal as a phone call or meeting.
  • There's no two-way dialogue.
  • There's less opportunity to respond to individual concerns, and to develop a relationship
  • And (the shocking truth) some letters are never opened at all.

So each of these contact methods has positive and negative features. Okay, but how do you resolve the issue? You want to get going. What method should you choose in your situation right now?

We'd like to provide an all-purpose answer. But in fact, we don't believe there is one. Instead, the answer to the question depends on your situation.

Factors in your decision

While face-to-face contact is generally best, other things equal, but other things aren't always equal. But here are some situations when you really might want to put the effort into personal contact, and in meeting face-to-face:

  • When you have a small number of people to recruit
  • When you have a large number of people to recruit them (You needn't be doing this job alone.)
  • When you have the time available to make the contacts
  • When the person you are recruiting would be an especially important member for your group
  • When the person you are recruiting is a particularly influential member in the community
  • When the person you are recruiting doesn't know you or your group very well

A phone contact might be the best choice in these cases:

  • When the prospective member is unavailable (or unlikely to be available) for a meeting
  • When the prospective member is relatively easy to reach by phone
  • When you and the prospective member are already acquainted
  • When the request being made is relatively simple
  • When you are personally comfortable speaking to others over the phone

And, as an alternative to the phone, here's when a letter might be strongly considered:

  • When you have a relatively large number of members to recruit
  • When you are the only person available to do the job
  • When your own time (and your group's time) is very limited
  • When it is less important who in particular the new members are
  • When the prospective member is already familiar with you or your group
  • When you have developed (or are given) an excellent mailing list

Let's try a few examples to illustrate these principles, with some proposed recommendations:

Example Recommendations
Your group wants local legislation passed. A city councilor is on your side Here is an influential member. Meet the councilor in person.
You want 50 residents to join you at a neighborhood meeting. They shouldn't be too hard to reach. Call them at home in the evening (you could also leaflet their doors).
You need 200 new members in the next few months, each of whom will send a check. Anybody's check is welcome. Find a good mailing list. Start with a letter.
You want to create an Advisory Board for a local health clinic. What do you think?

What about the specifics of your own situation now? What method choice would work best for you?

Combining different methods

At this point, we have good news (we hope). It is possible to combine these different methods of contact together. For instance, you can...

  • Call, then write
  • Call, then set up a meeting
  • Write, then call
  • Write, then set up a meeting

And, to expand the point, you can add a third stage as well. That is, you can call after you have sent a letter, or write after you have met. In other words,

  • Call, write, call, or
  • Call, meet, write

Many other variations are possible, but these are enough for now (we don't want things to get too complicated).

In many cases, combining methods is a good idea. The health clinic advisory board example above is an excellent case in point. It's an important task; it's worth taking the time. So, your own time permitting, you want to call (or write) prospective members, and set up a meeting; or (as a less intensive alternative) write, then call. In either case, you could follow up with another call or letter.

A precise discussion of the exact sequence of events takes us beyond the scope of this module. But the main point, though, is that it's possible and often desirable to combine different methods when you are asking members to join your group. Each method can support and build upon the strengths of the other. In many situations, using a well-thought-out combination of methods may be worth your time and trouble.

Adjusting your method to fit the situation

We'll wind up this section with more helpful news. You don't have to stick to a single method all the time. Your strategy can vary: you can use one contact method for some people, and another method for others. The saying goes, "Different strokes for different folks." It's the truth.

So a bank president might best be approached in a scheduled meeting, face-to-face. A minister might be found only by phone, Sunday afternoons, after the sermon. Someone who's on the road a lot might pay special attention to the mail (unless you want to try recruiting by cell phone), while a shopkeeper might be most available then and there, in the store. All these people are available, but more easily in particular ways. If you are interested in Prospect X, your task as recruiter is to ask yourself, "How can I best get hold of this particular person?"

Taking advantage of chance

Before we conclude, there's one more contact approach to list. It needs to be mentioned, even though it's not exactly a "method." We'll call it "chance. "

You might run into a potential member at the post office, or at the football game. You might see that same bank president picking up the newspaper, or at church. If it's not out of place to approach them --and maybe it's not --then take advantage of those chance opportunities. In unplanned encounters, when people are not in a hurry, many people will show their natural and helpful selves. And they may be more receptive to what you want to tell them.

Good community work means being prepared to take advantage of every opportunity presented to you, whether by chance or by design.

In Summary

Meetings, phone calls, and letters can be seen as just part of an overall membership strategy, with each to be used as needed. If several good methods exist, why limit yourself to just one?

But once you've made your choice or choices, how do you carry them out? That's the topic of our next two sections!

Bill Berkowitz

Print Resources 

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J.(1994). Public health advocacy: Creating community change to improve health. Palo Alto, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., & Max, S. (1991). Organizing for social change: A manual for activists in the 1990s. Minneapolis, MN: Midwest Academy.