Search form

Section 5. Making Personal Contact with Potential Participants

Learn how to recruit potential participants for your organization by following these guidelines for making personal contact.


  • How to make a good impression

  • What to do before the meetings

  • What to do at the meetings

  • Unscheduled meetings

  • Making contact by phone

  • Dealing with rejection

As we've noted previously, the single most effective way to recruit potential members is to meet them face-to-face. (Though in many situations, phone calls and letters may sometimes be a better or additional choice).

But suppose you choose to set up a face-to-face meeting; the meeting time approaches, and there you are. What do you do? How should you use that meeting time most productively? How can you best bring that person into your organization?

How to make a good impression

Much of the answer is very simple. We even hesitate to write it down. But here it is: You want to make a good impression. Research shows that people form impressions quickly, that those impressions stick, and that they guide our behavior. If you are going to make an impression in any case, it might as well be the best one possible.

So you want to smile, make eye contact, show social graces. You want to dress for the success of the occasion. And you want to display all the good manners you were taught by the time you reached junior high. This is so obvious, and so fundamental, yet it's not always followed. So we hope you'll understand if we remind you just this once.

You can use the best technique in the world, but it won't help if you show up late with a spot on your shirt!

But the focus of this section is not on basic manners, rather more on nuts-and -bolts guidance for meeting members in person. There are indeed techniques you can and should use before and at a scheduled meeting. And not just at meetings. Generally speaking, they also apply to situations when you are recruiting over the phone, or at unscheduled meetings, door-to-door. Some special considerations for door-to-door and telephone contacts do exist, and we'll mention them toward the end of this section.

What to do before the meeting

Do some homework about your target person. What do you know? And what can you find out? What is their background, their work position, their special interests? What have you observed, or what can you learn about their personal style, or way of doing business? The more you know in advance about your potential members, the better you will be able to present your case so that it will meet their needs, and in a manner they can easily hear and appreciate.

Think about the meeting ahead of time if it's a scheduled meeting. Visualize what will go on. Visualize how you see the other person responding --what he or she might say, and what you might say in response. Also visualize the outcome of the meeting: What outcome do you want? What do you want to walk away with? Then visualize yourself walking away with that outcome in hand.

Much evidence in all walks of life-- in sporting events, in stage performances, in just about any social encounter--suggests that visualization, visualizing your desired outcome, can help you achieve your desired result. Try it for yourself. It's free, it's easy, you can do it anytime, you will get better at it with practice; and, it works.

What to do at the meeting

A Helpful Note: In this section, our focus is primarily on meeting people one-at -a-time, as individuals. But it's also very possible to meet people in groups -- you could make a presentation at another organization, for example, or you could give a public talk, or take the lead and invite your own group to meet a location of your choosing. The same basic principles apply.

Thank your prospective member for being there, for taking the time to meet with you.

This should be done sincerely. Sure, he or she might get something out of this meeting, and that's largely why they're there. But they might also be attending because you asked them. They didn't have to come. Their coming may at least in part be out of respect to you and what you believe in.

Expressing thanks is also practical. It reinforces their behavior of showing up and meeting with you. Indirectly, it reinforces their interest in your cause. Appreciation builds support.

Start with small talk.

There might be times where you wouldn't waste a moment, and got right down to business from the first hello. But those instances are rare. We can be businesslike without being all business, all the time. We are human too.

What small talk? Anything of mutual interest--and it's best if you know in advance what those mutual interests are. Weather, sports, mutual acquaintances, a recent community event, something in the news. Something you will both agree on, and not something where you would disagree, which is the last thing you want right now. You want to start by building some common ground, and that's what small talk does.

How much small talk? Let the other person guide you. He or she will do so by nonverbal signals--a shift in the seat, a change in expression, a look at a watch, or maybe by a direct statement. Follow that lead.

In other words, small talk isn't necessarily small; it's done for a reason. It builds a relationship between those who are speaking. Your relationship now may make a difference, later on. In recruiting members, as in life, relationships make the world go around.

Still in all, also be aware of the time you have set aside for the meeting. That way, you can pace yourself and accomplish what you would like to do by meeting's end, before time runs out on you. You don't want to let things go on too long before you get to the main event, the main reason why you are there.

State the purpose of the meeting, from your point of view.

Tell the prospective member what your role is, why you made the contact, and what you would like to discuss in this meeting. Be direct and honest and concise. Put your agenda right on the table.

This is a time to present your key points in summary form. You don't want to give a long lecture at this point--because the target person may well not be interested, and also because what you want now is dialogue. But do bring along any fact sheets /brochures/supplementary materials/reports with you, and give them to the prospective member as you talk, or at the end. That will fill in most of the detail. If the prospective member person has specific questions, he will know enough to ask you.

State what you are looking for from the meeting.

Be explicit.

Do you want the potential member:

  • To come to one of your meetings?
  • To serve on a board, or advisory board?
  • To undertake a specific task (alone, or with a task group of yours)?
  • To write a check?
  • To make some other kind of gift, or donate an in-kind service?
  • To recruit others to your organization, by acting as intermediary?
  • To get involved in some combination of the above?
  • Something else?

If there is one specific thing you want, don't hesitate to ask for it directly. But, it may be that you want no one specific thing. You are hoping instead that the prospective member will contribute or participate in any of several possible ways. In that case, you might say something like: "Here are several ways you might be able to help us. Which of these might make sense for you?" In other words, you give the potential member some options. You offer a menu ("menu technique"), with several different "courses" to choose among.

State the benefits that fulfilling your request will have for your target person.

Why should the target person want to or be willing to do what you are asking? Speaking directly, what's in it for him or her? You should be aware of those benefits in advance, and be able to present them without being asked. A reminder: To do this well, you should know something about the person you are meeting with, and plan your thoughts ahead of time.

What are these benefits? In brief, they include:

  • Helping others
  • Gaining information
  • Meeting people
  • Solving a problem
  • Being included
  • Improving status
  • Having fun
  • Making money

Sometimes, depending on the situation, you may want to state some benefits before asking for what you want. The order of these two can vary. In your presentation, it's also possible to weave the two together, in a way that's custom-tailored to your prospective member. At this point, it's hard to be more specific. With some practice, you'll have a better idea of how to go about it.

Listen to what your prospective member has to say.

Give her or him some space and time to respond. They will raise some of their main concerns, without much help from you. When you listen, listen very carefully to those concerns.

Sometimes other people may not state their true concerns directly, out of politeness to you, or discomfort for them, or both. You may wish to probe a little and draw them out, and encourage them to get their real reactions out in the open. That will be helpful both to them and you.

Of course, you should have a good idea of what those concerns might be before you go into the meeting. And you should also have a good idea of how you might respond to them if they are spoken aloud. In other words, you want to be able to anticipate and to counter most possible objections. And to do this well, you have to be able to listen well.

Examples: Concerns, and possible replies

The respondent may be concerned about time commitment:

"I don't know if I have the time to do this."
"I understand. The time commitment usually runs about three hours a month. Is that something you might be able to try?" (If not, have another alternative in mind.)

Or ability to commit to a certain length of time:

"A year from now, who knows where I'll be."
"If you could give us a year, that would be great."

Or availability at the meeting time or day:

"Thursday afternoons are sometimes a bad time for me."
"We're planning to review the meeting time. How about Wednesdays?"

Or ability or skill to do the job:

"I've never done anything like this before."
"Nobody has, before they started. But it's not really hard to do. And we'll give you all the help you need."

Or the mission and purpose of your organization itself:

"I support a lot of what you do. But a few of your goals bother me a little. "
"Which ones? Can I explain to you what we have in mind...?"

These are all common concerns, whether mentioned explicitly or not. Are there others we haven't included? And what do you think of the sample replies above? True, they are short, and not very detailed. How would you improve upon them?

In listening and responding to concerns, it may help to have some fallback or alternative position in mind. So that if the target person is not willing or able at this time to commit to A, he or she could be offered B, or C, or D, or perhaps a smaller-size version of A. The underlying question is: "What can you commit to?" This is a variation of the "menu technique" presented earlier --you make your direct request (your "house special"); and if the customer doesn't order, you suggest another item, or perhaps a smaller-size portion.

Review what you have agreed on.

This will ensure that any agreements or commitments you have discussed are made clear and explicit.

When you state them, you can ask the other person something like, "Does that sound right?" or "Is that OK for you?". This allows him or her to correct you if needed, and also to verbally confirm to what has been agreed to once again. Verbal agreement strengthens commitment.

You then want to bring the meeting to a specific conclusion and not let things carry on too long, past your agreed-upon time. Don't wear out your welcome. Even if you have not been as successful as you would have liked, the chances are good you will have other opportunities.

Let your prospect know what the next steps are going to be.

It might be "We'll make sure you know about the next meeting." Or "We'll be sending you a card in the mail." Or "Someone will call you and give you the details."

These follow-up steps should (again) be clear and explicit, so that the prospect will know precisely what will happen next, and when --and will not be surprised or taken aback by any follow-up contacts that might occur.

Thank the prospective member.

Thank the person both for time given, and for any commitments made to you and your cause. Show your appreciation. Once again, you want to reinforce any favorable action taken. (This is also a good time to give them any literature or supplementary material to take with them, and/or to pass out to others.)

If there is time, a bit more small talk may end the meeting.

The bonds get cemented.

Follow up on what you said you were going to do from your end.

Most of the time, the prospective member has met you close to halfway. The remaining part of the responsibility is yours.

Unscheduled meetings

The above suggestions apply especially to face-to-face meetings with a prospective member (or group) when the meeting has been scheduled or prearranged. But sometimes you will want to, or need to, make personal contact with prospective members by other means --by going door-to-door for example, or by calling on the phone.

What adjustments should you make in such situations? What special considerations, if any, are called for?

Wait, though: If a scheduled meeting is possible, why would anyone want to recruit door-to-door in the first place?

For several possible reasons:

  • Your goal may be to contact everyone in a certain limited geographical area, such as a small neighborhood, or a political precinct. Going from door to door helps ensure that goal.
  • You might be part of a town-wide campaign, where every resident in the town will be contacted. Other workers will be also ringing doorbells, in different parts of town. Here, you have your own territory.
  • Your aim is to get one-time support --such as a vote, a petition signature, or a contribution. Since you may not be seeking long-term membership or long-term commitment, there's less need to schedule formal meetings.
  • Your emphasis might be on breadth of support, more than depth. You might want the raw numbers. Since doorstep encounters almost always take less time, going door to door in such cases is likely to be more efficient.

These are all good reasons. But it's important not to minimize the challenge the door-to-door recruiter faces. You must approach strangers (or relative strangers ), without warning, possibly at inconvenient times, and ask them to give up some time and/or money, and/or to take some action on behalf of your cause, about which they may know little or nothing. Door-to-door recruiters definitely don't have their work cut out for them. It's not a day at the beach.

Yet while these challenges are real, they can be minimized. A doorbell ringer with the right preparation and the right attitude can win many new supporters, interest other potential supporters, significantly advance one's cause, and actually have a good time getting to meet some new and interesting people. Don't forget these positives !

Here are some short-form, telegraphic tips for door-to-door recruiting, supplementing and building upon the previous material on scheduled meetings. These tips can make your job easier, more successful, and hopefully more enjoyable as well:


  • Know your territory. This is the basic salesman's rule, and here it applies to you. The rule in short is that the more you know about your territory, the more effective you will be. Your territory in this case is a neighborhood; learn as much about it as you can. Read about it. Ask around. Walk around, before you even start. You will then feel more comfortable dealing with others, and others will feel more comfortable dealing with you.
  • Plan your destinations in advance. First, what is your exact territory, and what are its boundaries? Next, do you want to knock on every single door, or just a sample, or just at certain kinds of residences? For example, suppose you want to speak only to women; that's easy enough. Or suppose your goal is to contact renters, rather than homeowners; here you might prepare by contacting rental agents and assessors --offices, itemizing apartment buildings, and constructing a list that you can verify at each door stop.
  • Plan your walking route, house by house. Sketch it out. Find good detailed maps (check with your local planning department), and take them with you.
  • Give yourself a target for how many doors you want to cover in your time allotted. (This will give you a goal to shoot for, and also help prevent you from stopping too long at any one address.)
  • Leave some printed material describing your cause by each door in advance of your visit, if possible. Mention that you will be stopping by on a particular day or days. In that way, recipients will have a chance both to familiarize themselves with the issue, and will also be less likely to be distrustful when you do appear.
  • Plan in advance for different situations you may encounter. Suppose you're on the doorstep, ready to listen. But just for instance, what will you do if (a) no one answers the bell (will you call again?); (b) someone answers who does not fall into your desired category (e.g., a child, who says: "Mom and Dad won't be back till later"); (c) someone answers, and invites you in (will you step inside?)
  • Avoid certain hours: early morning; late in the evening; dinnertime; daytime's, if you think your target person will be out working. The best times are often between dinner and dark, or on Saturdays. But supplement these guidelines with common sense, blended together with your knowledge of the neighborhood and its customs.
  • Dress to the norms of the neighborhood, or perhaps one notch above. Neatly and cleanly, of course. But in a T-shirt neighborhood, business clothes are unnecessary and may be counterproductive --even though ripped jeans and grungy sweatshirts will almost never be your attire of choice.


When you are at the doorstep, and poised to ring the bell, the general point is to build your credibility and trustworthiness from the very beginning. And this means, in most cases:

  • Begin by introducing yourself, by full name. If you live in the neighborhood, say so, and say specifically where. If you have a common acquaintance or friend, and especially if that person suggested you might stop by, mention (and possibly highlight) that fact. By doing so, you are both reducing possible initial suspicion and also building potential bonds of similarity.
  • State what group you are representing, if any, and a very brief reason for your visit.
  • Verify the name of whomever you are speaking to, if you don't know it already.
  • Ask if your target persons might have "just a minute." This is courteous, and (if they say yes) yields a mild commitment to listen. Wait for some acknowledgment. If they say they don't have time, or very strongly imply it, you may ask if there's a more convenient time when you could return. Your visit should normally not take much more than a minute or two, if you speak to your topic and are well prepared. People's time is valuable. So is yours.
  • State the reason for your visit in a little more detail. In doing so, it will help to know how familiar your target person is with your issue. If the target person knows the issue, you can get right to the point. If not, you may want to give some very brief background. Plan what you will say in either case. If you can sense how familiar they are before your visit, so much the better. It will save time. If you're not sure, you can ask.
  • Look for similarities or common points of reference between you and the target person; point them out, or imply them --for similarity increases persuasiveness. (For instance, "I think my daughter graduated in the same year as your son.") See also if you can ask some questions that the other person can say "yes" to --for earlier agreement increases later persuasiveness as well. (For instance, "Do you remember that big accident down the street near here?" ["Sure."] "That was terrible, wasn't it?" ["Yes, it was awful."])
  • State the action you hope the other person might take. It could be a signature on a petition, a vote, attendance at a meeting, a purchase, a contribution, the willingness to contact other residents, or a promise to do any one or more of those things. The action you desire will vary, but you want to be clear on your specific request in advance.
  • State the benefits of taking that action. Why should they do it? What will be the benefits to the recipient? What will they get out of it? (See Point # 5, under Scheduled Meetings.)
  • If the target person agrees, follow up directly (present the petition, make the sale, get the check....).
    • If someone hesitates, reinforce your appeal with another benefit, or repeat the same benefit, or combine the two together.
    • If someone declines, or hesitates further, suggest a more limited form of action. They may not sign the petition; would they accept some literature and agree to read it? If they can't contribute now, would they accept a pledge form? If they can't come to a meeting this week, could we send a reminder card about the next one?
    • If someone says no, and you are convinced they mean it, thank the person for their time, and move right on. In most cases, it's not worth the effort to try to convince an opponent on the spot. You have too many other people to visit.
  • Allow some space in your conversation, usually toward the end, to solicit your target persons' own ideas. They may have a way of contributing or helping that you hadn't thought of before; but you won't know unless you ask. And, perhaps they can point you to other neighbors who might be interested, or who could also help out ; they probably know better than you do. Listen carefully here; capitalize on any offers of assistance.
  • Thank the person. (Everyone likes to be thanked.) They have listened to you. They deserve your sincere appreciation. And, of course, follow up, as mentioned before. Make sure you get their phone number before you leave, if you don't already know it.
  • Keep a record of your contact. After you leave, but before you move on to the next house, take a moment to record the important details. Whom did you speak to? What was their response? What further action is called for? Write this information down. We forget all too easily, and the written record may come in handy time and again.
  • Smile, and be friendly, without being insincere. Though it's sometimes easier said than done, try to make each conversation a pleasant social encounter. This is a benefit to the target person --and also to you. As you converse you want to be in a good mood. If you communicate that you are tired and bored or anything less than enthusiastic and committed to, can you guess what the effects are likely to be?

If this seems like a long list, well, it is. But it gets a lot easier with a little practice. And to make it easier still, all of this can and should be done in your own language, and in your own style. True, language and style will need to be adjusted to your own setting, because every situation and every target person is different. It will always help to respond to what the other person is telling you, both verbally and non-verbally. A door-knocker is not only a persuasive presenter, but also a very skilled listener, and an expert improviser!

These same basic tips can be adapted to many other unscheduled meetings, in addition to door-to-door --street-corner encounters, for example, or unplanned meetings in public places. It's not that every chance meeting should be turned into a recruitment presentation --the time is not always right, and, just possibly, there might be better things to talk about. But sometimes the time is right; you should be prepared to use the opportunity.

Does this mean you should always travel with business cards in your pocket, or brochures in a shoulder bag? Here, we're just raising the question. What is you answer?

Making contact by phone

Other things equal, it's almost always preferable to meet prospective members face - to-face. But in community work, other things aren't always equal. There are tradeoffs. And in some cases, you may decide that it is preferable to contact prospective members by phone.


The key advantage of using the phone is that you can potentially cover much more ground in a much shorter time. A scheduled meeting might take half an hour; a house call might take five minutes; but a phone call might take two minutes or less. These figures are very approximate, but if you can make ten or more phone calls in the same time as one sit-down meeting, could that, at least sometimes, be a better way to go? (There's also e-mail, even group e-mail, but for our purposes this is not "personal contact.")


  • Many of the reasons given for door-to-door contact also apply here:
  • When you are looking for one-time support
  • When your emphasis is on "quantity" of support rather than "quality"
  • Phone contact also can work well when your message is simple and uncomplicated.
  • And phone contact might also be preferred when you already know the person you are contacting, and know that person well --a face-to-face meeting then might be less necessary or not necessary at all.
  • Finally, phone contact can be used in conjunction with, or as a supplement to, face-to-face contact. You can follow up a face-to-face meeting with a phone call. Or, alternatively, you can use the phone call both to schedule a face-to-face meeting and to set the tone for what is to follow. Or you can do both.


What special tips apply here, beyond what's already been stated?

  • For phone calls in particular, plan your approach in advance. This is precisely because phone calls are less personal; and because many people are not eager to talk on the phone with strangers; and also because your intent might be more easily mis-perceived (e.g., "What is this person trying to sell me?"). For all these reasons, being persuasive over the phone with a stranger is generally harder than being persuasive face-to -face. A carefully planned approach then becomes that much more important.
  • Specifically, it may help you to write out an actual phone script for what you will say. Practice that script out loud, until you are comfortable with it. When you make your actual calls, you can use that script as a guideline. This does not mean you literally recite the script over the phone (listeners can tell when this is happening; they are rarely impressed.) But you can use the script as the basis for your remarks. As you get more experience, you can revise your overall script, and gradually let go of it entirely. And you can adjust your words more easily to what you hear on the other end of the phone.
  • But it's not just what you say, it's the way that you say it. Your phone voice makes a big difference. Your listeners must make judgments on relatively limited information; they can't look you in the eye, nor can they see your charming smile. What they can and do judge is your voice --its clarity, its resonance, its naturalness, its warmth. To bring this point home, try making a recording, and listening to yourself, even if it's just the greeting on your own answering machine. Pause and reflect: Would you be persuaded by that voice? How could it be made more persuasive? Then, make the needed adjustments.
  • When you make calls, test the results of your approach. Keep records of contacts and outcomes, and evaluate those outcomes. If your approach is not doing the job for you, then you might want to change what you say or how you say it. Do you have enough understanding of your target persons' background and experience? Are you providing the right benefits and the right reasons why they should become a member?

With phone calls, as in door-to-door contact, you need to prepare for a wide variety of possible events. Suppose, for example:

  • You reach a disconnected number
  • The phone rings, but no one answers
  • The person you want to reach is unlisted
  • You reach an answering machine
  • The person you want to reach is not at home
  • The person you want to reach is at home, but unable (or unwilling?) to come to the phone
  • The person asks you to call back another time
  • The person cuts you off and hangs up

How will you respond in each case? There are no hard-and-fast rules for every situation. Our point is rather that you should think about these possibilities in advance, and have a good idea for how you will respond to each one of them.

  • What to do when you reach an answering machine (and you will reach many of them ) deserves special attention. Two general questions to resolve here: (a) Should you leave a message on the machine, or is it better to call again and hope for a live contact? (b) If you do call again, how many call-backs should you make before you stop trying? Once again, no set answers; but you should make decisions that best fit your own setting.
  • Finally, a tip from professional telemarketers: The longer the target person stays on the phone, the greater the likelihood he or she will comply with your request. The corollary is that you must engage your target person right from your first words, so that you can keep the conversation going without being cut off. Perhaps this principle will work for you --but keep in mind that the longer you do talk with one person, the fewer total calls you will be able to make in the time you have available. So some kind of balance is probably called for.

Dealing with rejection

Despite your best efforts, not everyone is going to be persuaded to support your cause. Especially when you contact others door-to-door or by phone, many people will simply say no, and mean it, for a wide variety of reasons. Some people will be impolite; a few will be downright unpleasant. Your percentage of successes may be lower than you thought. Some days it may be so low that you are on the verge of becoming discouraged.

But don't be discouraged. Gaining even a few good new members can easily justify your time spent. Winning those new members to your cause often takes time; it usually doesn't happen all at once. What's more, people who may seem indifferent to you now may come around a few months or even longer down the road, just because of the seeds you planted on that first contact, which seemed so unproductive back then. And as for those people who are impolite or rude or worse, don't take it personally. They may just be having a bad day, or a run of bad days. We all do. If we can feel kindly toward them regardless, we may deepen our own character, even if we don't win converts.

In Summary

Making personal contact with potential members is not always easy. To be as successful as you would like takes time and skill, both patience and persistence, both assertiveness and sensitivity. It calls fully upon the best qualities you have to offer.

But the compensating rewards are well worth it. When people do join and get excited about the work, when they start to assume positions of leadership, when your organization gains victories and strengthens community life -- all in large part due to your efforts -- you can take deserved and long-lasting satisfaction in a job well done.

Bill Berkowitz

Print Resources

Brown, M. (1994). How to recruit people to your organization. Cambridge, MA: Brown, Michael J. (Available from author at 54-C Trowbridge Street, Cambridge, MA 02138)

Ellis, J. (1996). The volunteer recruitment book. (2nd ed.) Philadelphia: Energize, Inc.

Kahn, S. (1982). Organizing. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill. (See especially Chapter 6.)

Leonard, Libby, Bill Ariano, & Eileen Ryan (1981). Strengthening volunteer initiative: A neighborhood self-help curriculum. Washington, DC: National Center for Urban Ethnic Affairs. (See especially the section on Door-knocking.) [Available from the Center at P.O. Box 20, Cardinal Station, Washington, DC 20064.]