Time was not on our side
One factor stands out as a creating the greatest challenge in how we implemented our recruiting: time. This kind of program involves a high degree of trust. We were asking young adults to spend a year of their lives with us, a program with no reputation and no past participants to speak on our behalf.
Creating this trust meant building relationships with young adults and with those who could recommend our program to them. When building relationships there is no substitute for time and face to face contact. Since we did not have as much time to build face to face relationships in as many places as we would have liked I intentionally focused on meeting as many people as possible in the Detroit area, both prospective young adults and those who are already working with them. We also invested in the means to get our program in front of the greatest number of people as possible: the internet. We used search advertising, social media, and job postings on an array of listing boards. This is a lower quality means of communicating compared to face to face meetings but gave us a greater reach by far.
Starting our active recruiting efforts in March also meant that we were ramping up just as academic centers are turning their attention to finishing the academic year. Graduating seniors were our prime candidates for the program, for them this time of year means a focus on finishing academics and on final social hurrahs. Many graduates already had plans or at least intentions for what they were doing in the Fall. Starting in March meant that we were not even an option when prime candidates were looking for Fall programs.
There are many options for a year long volunteer or gap year experience. In a crowded marketplace I wonder how well we stand out compared to other programs. The appeal of Detroit and breaking down racism/building equitable community might not be as compelling as we thought. These are also something that can be found with other programs, in Detroit and else where. In many areas we are up against other programs that offer more and are better known.
Most other programs also invest more in their volunteers throughout the year. Our $250 a month stipend was by no means the lowest but other programs with lower-end stipends had other benefits to offset other expenses. We found it was fairly common for a program to offer health insurance, a food budget, local transportation allowance and often an end of service bonus.