A photo of a doctor surfing an iPad with the words "Parkinson's Disease" superimposed on the image.

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The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research has come up with a clever way to press forward with their research: recruiting potential study participants on Facebook.

Led by a board of directors including both Marc Lipschultz and Douglas Ostrover of Owl Rock Capital Partners—as well as many others in the business and nonprofit world—the MJFF is always looking for new ways to support research and outreach about the disease.

Based on recent efforts, it looks like Facebook ads may be the way to go.

The MJFF’s latest research focuses on the Ashkenazi Jewish demographic, which is more likely to carry the markers that can lead to Parkinson’s (mutations in the LRRK2 and GBA genes). So when it came time to recruit volunteers for a series of tests called the Parkinson’s Progression Markers Initiative (PPMI), the MJFF turned to Facebook.

In May 2015, the MJFF began a series of Facebook ads requesting volunteers from the Ashkenazi Jewish community to commit to a “spit test.” The MJFF would send the volunteers a kit, which the volunteers mailed back with a sample of their saliva ready for testing.

The campaign was a rousing success.

Recruiting volunteers the traditional way (usually through in-person events) can be time-consuming and expensive. The Facebook campaign, on the other hand, was extremely effective and cost-efficient. It “surpassed our expectations,” said Sohini Chowdhury, senior vice president of research partnerships at MJFF. In fact, it was so successful that “we had to close the pilot after two months,” Chowdhury added. “We took a pause, and we scaled up.”

Since implementing the social media ad campaign, the MJFF has seen a 33% increase in PPMI volunteers. And costs have sunk considerably: recruiting and identifying eligible individuals now costs the MJFF $7-$24, as compared to the $800 spent when the research began in 2010.

While the Foundation is eager to try this method of volunteer recruitment for other research studies, Chowdhury notes that it may not be the best method for every situation. “It’s a lot easier when you have a specific population you are trying to target,” she noted.

The MJFF will continue recruitment and research for the PPMI project through 2017. To find out more about how to get involved, click here.

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Sarah is a freelance writer with a wide variety of interests, including international relations, politics, education, humanitarianism, women's rights, yoga, mental and physical health, and natural remedies.