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Recruiting and Retaining African American Men for Community-Based Studies

Posted on January 18, 2012

Christie Spence (bio) and Thomas Oltmanns (bio) discuss how a targeted, personalized strategy proved effective in recruiting and retaining African American men for a study exploring personality, health, and aging.


Q: What were the recruitment goals for your study?
A: The St. Louis Personality and Aging Network (SPAN) study was designed to explore personality, health, and transitions in later life among St. Louis area residents aged 55-64. We wanted to obtain a sample that accurately represented the population in this community: 60% European Americans, 30% African Americans, and 2% Hispanic Americans.
Q: What was your recruitment strategy?
A: Initially, we mailed letters describing the study to prospective participants aged 55-64 based on recent census data. Lab staff followed up the letters by calling the letter recipients, explaining the study in further detail, answering questions, and scheduling an appointment for those who agreed to participate. Participants were given $60 for completing the baseline assessment.

However, we realized after two years that only 31% of the African American participants were male, compared with 46% of the European American participants, so we developed a multifaceted strategy that specifically targeted this population.
Q: How did you adapt your strategy to recruit more African American males?
A: First, we identified ten zip codes with 78-100% African American residents and further narrowed our contact list to households in which the phone number was listed in a man's name.

In collaboration with an Emeritus Psychology and African American Studies professor, our lab staff drafted a letter describing the study and requesting the recipient's participation in the study. The letter was different from the original letter in two ways: (1) it included the sentence, "It is important that we collect information from all kinds of people. In particular we are concerned with including African American men," and (2) instead of indicating that a "household" had been selected for participation, it stated that "your name was selected."

This approach addressed several factors that focus groups have suggested are important to African American men when considering whether to participate in a research study: receiving a personal invitation, feeling that their input is valued, and believing that the research staff is genuinely interested in them (Woods et al., 2004).

Lab staff also placed follow-up calls to prospective participants who did not respond to the letter. If they were unable to make contact after twelve calls, they sent a second letter, again requesting a response.

As with the general recruitment strategy, when staff members were able to reach potential participants, they provided details about the study, answered questions, and scheduled appointments for those who agreed to participate. However, these calls were different in that whenever possible, they were made by African American staff members or research assistants. In addition, to demonstrate sensitivity to the African American value of respect toward elders, the callers referred to prospective participants by Mr. or Mrs., rather than their first names.

We also displayed a poster with the photos and names of the staff involved in the study—including full-time staff as well as graduate and undergraduate students—in the main entrance of the lab offices. This poster served to familiarize participants with the study staff as well as highlight the staff's cultural diversity.
Q: Was the targeted recruitment strategy effective?
A: Yes. Of the 900 households contacted during this phase of recruitment, 122 African American men scheduled and completed appointments.

Overall, we were able to recruit about 500 African American participants, 43% of them male, by the end of baseline data collection, and we were pleased with these numbers.
Q: What strategies have you used to retain your study participants, in particular African American men?
A: To this point, the SPAN team hasn't developed any retention strategies specific to African American men. However, we do strive to ensure that all of our study participants—not just African Americans—feel valued, and this approach has worked well for us. We typically meet participants in the parking lot with a parking pass, walk them to the lab, offer refreshments, encourage questions, and work with only one participant at a time.

This approach helps communicate to participants that we are genuinely interested in them, which we know from focus groups in other studies is particularly important to African American male study participants.



Spence, C. T. & Oltmanns, T. F. (2011). Recruitment of African American men: Overcoming challenges for an epidemiological study of personality and health. Cultural Diversity and Ethnic Minority Psychology, 17(4), 377-380. doi: 10.1037/a0024732

Additional Reference:

Woods, V. D., Montgomery, S. B., & Herring, R. P. (2004). Recruiting black/African American men for research on prostate cancer prevention. American Cancer Society, 5, 1017-1025. doi:10.1002/cncr.20029


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