Essential Tools for Recruiting Sites for Studies: Finding the Needle in a Haystack


At Magnolia Consulting, one of our specialities is designing and implementing curriculum efficacy or effectiveness studies, and we are often tasked with recruiting sites (i.e., schools or school districts) to participate. Finding potential sites that both fit the requirements for a given study and are able to participate can feel like finding a needle in a haystack. Based on our experience, it is possible to find these sites, but it can be challenging and requires a well-thought-out plan of action. We have found that an organized, collaborative, and personal approach to recruitment is fundamental to success. The following list includes several key elements for effectively navigating the recruitment process:

  • Start early! Allow ample time for the recruitment process, as it can be quite time consuming to identify sites and to fully bring them onboard. In terms of study implementation, it is easier to confirm sites early rather than at the last minute. If possible, start recruitment in early spring before testing or before summer break when contacts may be out of the office.
  • Create clear study documents. As each study is unique in terms of site selection criteria and benefits to participating sites, it is important to develop clear study descriptions for potential sites. Consider visually appealing ways to present information (e.g., a one-page infographic or handout about the study), as well as various methods of dissemination to a wide audience (e.g., website links or mailing lists). Ensure team members within your company review these documents and are able to clearly explain the study details to potential sites.
  • Develop a list of potential applicants. Before contacting sites, consider developing a tool to track potential sites, which may include details on site demographics and student enrollment information. Sources for this list may include information from a national database (e.g., National Center for Education Statistics) or a curriculum provider’s mailing list of users and may be limited by specific requirements of the study, such as certain areas of the country, size or locale (urban, suburban, rural) of the site, use of specific programs, or access to technology.
  • Create email and phone protocols. Utilizing email and phone communication protocols for initial contacts and any follow-up communications provides an outline for professional, consistent messaging across multiple interactions and staff members. Being approachable, positive, and grateful in all correspondence sets the stage for a potential longer-term connection.
  • Track all efforts. Tracking every interaction with potential sites is essential. For example, in an Excel spreadsheet or Google Sheet, it is possible to track all dates and methods of contact, name/phone/email of the contact, site selection criteria met, and key points from the communication, such as next steps. Tracking efforts streamlines the process, promotes greater understanding of recruitment efforts among team members, and supports the study team in making the final decision on which sites to include in the study.
  • Follow up! Consistent, timely follow-up with contacts in a way that balances persistence with consideration of busy school and district schedules is key. It is also generally good practice to communicate whether a site is selected to participate in the study and to show appreciation for time invested.
  • Confirm final sites. As study sites are selected, continue to communicate regularly with them regarding next steps. For example, ensure that all district and school approval processes are followed and request that sites sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), which outlines the roles and responsibilities of all study parties. Once MOUs are signed, move forward with next steps regarding various study start-up tasks.