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What is involved in understanding the issue?

You probably already have a good idea about why your issue is important. You probably also know something about its history, and what brought the situation about. That's great, but before you face the world in a big-time (or even small-time) advocacy campaign, you will need to be armed with quite a lot of extra knowledge about the background of your issue, as well as the way it affects your community.

Why do you need a thorough understanding of your issue?

  • You'll need to have arguments at your fingertips that can convince your members that the issue is important and keep them fired up
  • You'll need to persuade allies to join your cause by presenting them with facts that they won't be able to ignore or refute
  • You'll need to know why your opponents are taking the side they take, and what financial or other interests they may have in continuing to take that side
  • With research, you'll know better what needs to be done to correct a situation. Furthermore, you'll know which of the necessary steps are fairly easy to take, and which may be a major stretch for your organization.
  • You'll know what strategic style is likely to work best, whether you're going to run an "in your face" type of initiative, or act behind the scenes, or something in between
  • When and if the dispute becomes public - as you may want it to do - you will have the answers. If a reporter asks you for a reaction, or shoves a microphone in your face, you will be sure of your facts.
  • You'll be ready with facts any time you are challenged by your opponent, by the establishment (such as City Hall), or by the media
  • Because you'll thoroughly understand the status quo from the beginning of your campaign, you will be able to plan your progress logically and, at the end, know just how far you have come

The bottom line is that before you proceed with the specific planning steps in the rest of this chapter, you will need a nice, solid, comforting layer of knowledge on which to base your plans.

What sort of research is involved?

Other parts of the Tool Box deal with the collection of facts and statistics. There is no doubt that you must know the facts about your issue - in fact, you can't operate without them. But you will need much more than a basis if you are to be a successful advocate:

  • You'll need to know how people feel about the issue, and what they believe
  • You'll need to know how the issue links or divides different segments of the community
  • You'll need to understand who is pulling the strings to make your opponents take the line they do
  • You'll need to know what forces might be at work in the local political scene to make officials drag their feet - or even jump in to oppose you
  • You might need to know what it will take to make people give up the old way of doing things and try something else
  • You might need to know the belief systems of people who oppose you on ideological grounds

Starting points for your research:

Who is affected by the issue?

  • Who is affected the most?
  • Who loses, and what do they lose?
  • Who gains, and what do they gain?

What are the consequences of the issue?

  • For the individuals mostly affected?
  • For their families?
  • For society?

What is the economic impact of the issue?

  • What are the economic costs of the issue, and who bears these costs?
  • What are the economic benefits of the issue, and who benefits?

What is the social impact of the issue?

  • What are the social costs of the issue, and who bears these costs?
  • What are the social benefits of the issue, and who benefits?

What are the barriers?

  • What are the barriers to addressing this issue?
  • How can they be overcome?

What are the resources?

  • What resources will we need to address this issue?
  • Where and how can they be tapped?

What is the history of this issue?

  • What is the history of the issue in the community?
  • What past efforts were made to address it?
  • What were the results?

To put it another way, it's helpful to find the root cause of the issue and what has happened since.

What are the best sources of information?

You will probably need two main types of information:

Gathering background information

Getting accurate background information may be heavy lifting; you, or others in your group, may need to become experts in the field, or find existing experts to join or advise your group. For example, suppose your issue involves excessive logging and its effect on the environment. Your group should be somewhat knowledgeable about wildlife, watersheds, water quality, effects of logging on fish, the life-cycle of trees, the economics of the industry, the forestry regulations, and so on.

If your issue is health care for the poor, you may need to have a reasonable knowledge of a great many fields, including information about the economics of health care systems, the effect of medical neglect on poor families, and state and federal policies as they affect the indigent.


When you're looking for background information, your local library is a great place to start. It will have many current subscriptions and back numbers of major newspapers, magazines, etc.. Special reports published by periodicals can be a valuable resource for information about the background of your issue.

In addition, many reference librarians are born to surf. They can guide you to reliable sites on the Web where you can get what you need.

Here are some specific places to look in the library:

  • The Readers' Guide to Periodical Literature
    • This will lead you to the names and dates of articles on your issue that have appeared in magazines in recent years. Many libraries will also be able to produce the back copies of the magazines. These articles can be valuable in giving you background information--but keep in mind that, although it's not terribly common, incorrect (or outdated) information does occasionally find its way into print. To be on the safe side, verify what you learn with two or three independent sources.
  • Almanacs and yearbooks
    • Annual publications such as The World Almanac and Book of Facts, published by the Newspaper Enterprise Association may produce information you need. Yearbooks are more specialized. For example, The Municipal Yearbook and The County Yearbook are both published by the International City Management Association.
  • Indexes and surveys
    • Major newspapers often publish "indexes" which you can use to dig up stories from the archive, which the library may keep on microfiche or microfilm. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal and the Christian Science Monitor are three useful ones. Surveys of events are compiled by various organizations. One of the most useful is Facts on File.

The Internet

Get a good Internet directory, or put the right key words into a good search engine and you may find untold riches. For example, start with Fed World and it will lead you to dozens of Federal agencies and their oceans of data. Or try the Library of Congress.

While the Internet is full of good information, (for example, you found us!), you'll want to keep a couple of things in mind. The Internet is not monitored, so the information you find may be outdated or even completely incorrect. Start with the web pages of national or state organizations devoted to your topic; you can feel confident that these will be accurate and up-to-date.

Learning from other advocacy groups

In many cases, background research might already have been done by national advocacy groups, such as the Children's Defense Fund or the Sierra Club. You may also be able to learn from smaller advocacy groups who may be tackling issues similar to yours. However, you'll need to be careful about taking over facts and figures prepared by other organizations. In certain cases, these might not be accurate, or might give a different slant to the research than the one you need.

One thing that you can learn from other groups is their process--the way they went about their own research. For example, suppose a group in a neighboring community had a problem with a major industry dumping untreated waste into the river. Now, a similar problem seems to be developing with a pet-food processing plant in your community. You can find out what sources of information they used and what roadblocks they encountered in their efforts to remedy the situation.

You might want to use something similar to this form to get started:

Need to know Where to look Useful?
Effect of paper mill waste on fish
  • Library
  • College - Professor Smith, Zoology Department
  • Ask group at Milltown
  • Yes - ask for Jane
  • No - consults for company!
  • Great - have a lot of stuff they'll share


Gathering local information

You will need very specific information about the issue as it affects your community in order to plan your campaign and push the right buttons.

Some of the research methods that you use to gather background information may also be excellent for filling in the local angle. For instance, reference librarians often have an excellent knowledge of the community and where its archives or other background facts may be found.

The local media

If you have a local newspaper, try the clippings file. You may find valuable information about the origins of the problem you face. Television and radio may not keep archives systematically, but if there's a reporter or researcher on staff who's been around for many years, he or she might be glad to give you some guidance. For example: "I remember there was a zoning dispute... " or "When that hospital was set up, there was some provision... " Even unspecific memories and hints may lead you to the right corner of officialdom to dig out useful documents.

Remember that many local papers now have websites which are often stuffed with archival material.

Annual reports

Is your opponent a company that issues annual reports? These can provide useful statistics. Or you might find valuable information from special reports issued by groups such as public interest groups, business organizations, social services, and others that release information to the public. (Again, librarians might know where to look.)

Archival records

City Hall, or other government agencies, such as school boards, may have archival records that tell you what you want to know. For example, court records and real estate records may be loaded with information about past difficulties of opponents, the history of zoning decisions, and so on.

Another possible source to find information is through the Freedom of Information Act. Under this Act you can obtain information about federal government agencies. This may be about an outside agency or about your own. There are three exceptions: the Congress, the Federal Courts, and the Executive Office. Requests for information cannot be made to schools, state or local governments, and private businesses, organizations, or individual records.

Commercial sector

Often the business establishment of a community will gather facts and figures--for example, for use in a brochure that is designed to bring new business or new residents to the town. The Chamber of Commerce may be a good place to start.

Filling the gaps

There may be some information that you just can't get from written sources, whether paper or electronic. And if there are gaps in what you need to know, you may find that you can fill them best by asking questions.

For example, do you want to know whether a strategy you are considering is likely to win the support of the general public or their undying resentment? Ask!

Here are some suggestions for extracting the information you need from people in your community.

Interviews with community leaders

Set up a time to go and chat with people who are identified by members of the community as leaders. These people don't have to be elected officials or people in power, but they should be respected and have influence. They might be:

  • Church leaders
  • Youth group leaders
  • Respected local professionals
  • Representatives of the business community
  • Educators (i.e. school board members, school principals)

Usually these people are busy, so it pays to plan out your questions before you go in, and to make them specific. For example, "If you were in our situation, how would you... ?" Or, "Thinking back 15 years, can you remember how the community reacted to...?"

Remember that these leaders may be important to you later in the campaign, so be careful to keep them on your side! If they don't yet want to open up about a certain topic, back off.

Interviews with community residents

You may be able to gather useful information about community knowledge and attitudes by reaching a sample of the residents, if your sample is big enough, and if it is really representative.

There are various techniques you can use, including:

  • Intercept surveys (stopping people on the street)
  • Telephone surveys (with numbers picked at random)
  • Written surveys (sent to a sample picked at random)

You may get useful information from any of these methods, though the return rate on written surveys is usually very low and they're very expensive. Just chatting to people in the street, or telephoning a sample to ask what they think about a certain topic may give you fresh insights, or bring to your attention problems you hadn't thought about.

Just remember that you probably can't quote facts and figures gathered in these surveys unless:

  • You use a sufficiently large sample
  • You are very professional about the way that the sample is chosen
  • You are very professional about the way the questions are worded
  • The results are carefully coded and analyzed

For example, if your group claims that "90% of the people in this town support us," and it turns out you only telephoned your friends, or only talked to people in coffee shops, this will be easy for the opposition to dismiss--and they are unlikely to take your statistical claims seriously in future.

Focus groups

These can be useful in two ways:

  • To "go fishing" for ideas and reactions from a fairly typical bunch of people
  • To test out specific ideas

There is one caveat: most research from focus groups can't be used to "prove" anything. You can't say, "People in the community say that clean air is their highest priority - just on the basis of one focus group - it's simply not a large enough sample. But focus groups can be very effective in suggesting lines of inquiry that you might not have thought of, and in giving reactions to ideas presented to them.

Guided discussions

This way of gathering information is something like doing focus groups one on one. Members of your group chat with members of the community, either face-to-face or by telephone. Interviewers follow a check-list of points you want covered in the course of the conversation, and questions you'd like answered, but you can also afford to let the conversation wander - and that can often produce some good insights into the issue.

Prue Breitrose
Eric Wadud

Print Resources

Altman, D., Balcazar, F., Fawcett, S., Seekins, T., & Young, J. (1994). Public health advocacy: creating community change to improve health. Stanford, CA: Stanford Center for Research in Disease Prevention.

Cox, F., Ehrlich, J., Rothman, J., & Tropman, J. (Eds.). Tactics and techniques of community practice. (2nd ed.). Itasca: F. E. Peacock Publishers, Inc.

Legator, M., Harper, B., &  Scott, M. (1985). The health detective's handbook. Baltimore, MD: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Mondross, J., & Wilson, S. (1994). Organizing for power and empowerment. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Principles of Community Change, Second Edition (Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry) is an online book that provides the principles for community engagement.

START "Simple Toolkit for Advocacy Research Techniques" (VSO International). This research guide was put together by VSO International based on their own experiences of low-cost, non-academic professional research.

Werner, D., & Bower, B. (1982). Helping health workers learn. Palo Alto, CA: The Hesperian Foundation.