The Volunteer-Researcher Relationship

Out of the hundreds of researchers we’ve worked with over the years, only a handful truly excelled at recruiting volunteers. And the difference between those few successful researchers and the ones who struggled with recruitment, is that the successful researchers understood the importance of developing a relationship with their volunteers.

Note: In this instance, the term “volunteer” refers to a patient, healthy volunteer, or potential participant. So, for the sake of this guide, we’ll refer to them as volunteers. Because regardless of whether there is any compensation involved, these people are still volunteering their time (and themselves) to participate in your research.

Medical issues are intimidating and trying a new clinical treatment that is still in the testing stages can be scary for many. Which is why developing the volunteer-researcher relationship makes all the difference in enrolling volunteers in your study. So, before we delve into the ways you can improve your recruitment, we need to talk about the importance of fostering this relationship with your volunteers.

Developing the Volunteer-Researcher Relationship

The more interested a volunteer is in your study, the more likely they are to enroll.

For example, increased interest means your volunteers are more likely to answer when you call, or call you back when you leave a voicemail. An interested volunteer will be happy to give up their time to go through phone screening when you reach them, and will be more willing to commit to a screening visit and to follow through with the appointment.

The volunteer-researcher relationship and the volunteer’s interest in the study are in many ways interchangeable. Which means that a good relationship might increase the volunteer’s interest in your study, and vice versa. Conversely, if the volunteer-researcher relationship suffers, the volunteer’s interest in the study will decrease. So it is important to understand how these two factors work together—either factor can be affected by the other.

A helpful way to think about the volunteer-researcher relationship is to recognize that it is a falling exponential curve. The volunteer’s interest is on the left axis and time is on the bottom axis, like this:

Volunteer's Interest Over Time

You can influence the interest curve and increase volunteers’ interest (and thereby your enrollments) by following the practices in this guide.


Making volunteers feel valued is an important way to develop the volunteer-researcher relationship, as well as foster the volunteers’ interest in your study. And one of the ways you can do this is by showing that you’re appreciative of their time and effort.

One way to show appreciation to your volunteers is to understand and act like they’re doing you a very big favour (because they are!). Thank your volunteers for giving up their time, and try to meet every volunteer’s individual needs. This means that you should tailor every conversation about the study to what your volunteer wants to get out of it.

If this sounds like a big task, that’s because it is— however, the results you will achieve from this tactic will be worth it. Your volunteers are doing you a favour, yes, but they’re also contributing to research and may potentially get some benefits from your study. So be appreciative of your volunteers’ time and help them see the value of your research and help them understand their potential impact on society and other patients with the condition in the future. We’ll cover all the specific ways you can do this in later sections of this guide.

Respect and Credibility

Unfortunately, clinical trials are still a controversial topic of conversation that might stir negative emotions in some people. These people could be your volunteer’s spouse, immediate family, or even their friends. People are constantly being talked out of participating in clinical trials, and it is important to be aware of that reality.

Showing and being respectful of volunteers and their time significantly increases the perceived credibility of your study. And credibility is absolutely essential in recruiting and enrolling volunteers—it is one of the things Trialfacts focuses on when we put together the promotional material for a study. The more credible and respectful you are, the more your volunteers will be motivated and interested to participate in your study.

The researchers who recruit most effectively are always the ones who are willing to bend over backwards to accommodate their volunteers. Participating in a trial is time-consuming and a big commitment—you need to remain flexible, understanding, and respectful if you’re to reach your recruitment goals.

Being Personal

In order to establish a successful volunteer-researcher relationship, it’s important to personalize your communication with your volunteer, as well as put a friendly face on your organization.

No one likes being treated like a small cog in a big machine. That’s why it’s important to be personal and show interest in your volunteer. It’s important to understand why the volunteer enrolled in your study and take an interest in their motivation. You can use that motivation to maintain their interest and strengthen your relationship.

It is extremely important to emphasize the people your volunteers will be interacting with over your organization or study. Making your organization appear human can have a big impact on your volunteer’s interest. Things like having the same person contact a volunteer instead of multiple people, asking questions about their interests, and being available are all great ways to develop your relationship with your volunteer. You can read more about personalizing your communication in the later sections of this guide.


Persistence can sometimes feel like we’re being annoying; however, it can be disrespectful to give up too soon. Without the volunteer explicitly telling you they’re not interested, you are being assumptive. Remember that people are busy and they have busy lives—last-minute obligations and issues crop up all the time. That’s why it’s important to be diligent about enrolling a volunteer in your study.

It is extremely easy for a volunteer to tell you they’re not interested. On the other hand, when you are diligent and your volunteer answers on the seventh call, more often than not, they will thank you for your diligence and/or apologise for being too busy to answer sooner.

Being diligent isn’t just about following up often. It’s also about remaining appreciative, respectful, personal and available. And when it comes to diligence, it’s important to keep in mind the following realities that might give your volunteers a reason to not participate in your study.

Why Volunteers Lose Interest

How many times have you had every intention of responding to an email but did not get around to it for several days, or even weeks?

It is very easy for people to put even the simplest tasks in the “too hard” basket. And if you ask too much of your volunteers before their interest is high enough, or before the volunteer-researcher relationship is developed enough, you run the risk of losing them as potential participants.

Without appreciation, respect, credibility, diligence, and a personal touch, both the volunteer-researcher relationship and the volunteers’ interest in the study will quickly evaporate, leading to even the smallest tasks or commitments being put in the “too hard” or “not worth it” basket.

What might seem like minor oversights can often drive volunteers to give up on participating in your study. So, the easier you make things for your volunteers, the better the chances that they will enroll in your study.

Recruiting Externally vs. Internally

There is a big difference between recruiting volunteers internally versus externally.

It is very easy to recruit volunteers from your own clinic. Your volunteers know you, so the credibility is already established—the trust is there and the doctor-patient relationship is already sky-high, so you don’t need to develop that relationship in the ways we’ve discussed in this introduction.

However, if you are recruiting from external sources, the volunteer-researcher relationship has to be developed. The volunteer you are recruiting from an external source does not know anything about you, so you cannot use the same methods for internal volunteers as you do for your external volunteers.

So when recruiting volunteers from an external source, focus on developing a relationship with your volunteers by building credibility, being personal, and being appreciative of their time.

Now that we’ve discussed the general concepts that underpin successful enrollment, let’s take a closer look at each step:

  1. Contacting Volunteers
  2. Phone Screening
  3. Enrollment and Avoiding No-Shows

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