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Learn how to find out what people think about your organization or initiatives, and how to improve your communications to boost public support.


  • What does it mean to gather data on public opinion?

  • Why do you want to know what people think?

  • What kind of information are you looking for?

  • Whose opinions are you trying to measure?

  • What are you going to do with the information?

  • How do you gather data on public opinion?

What does it mean to gather data on public opinion?

Are you sure you want to find out what people think? Of course you do. Finding out what people think about a particular issue, topic, or organization is an important step in better serving the public, or at the very least finding ways to improve the way issues or organizations are seen in their eyes.

The role of public opinion is crucial in a democracy. Leaders rise and fall on public opinion. It doesn't really matter if elected officials are the "best choices" as long as citizens think they are. There are many things that effect public opinion, although that is not the focus of this section. Our focus will be on the why's and how's of gathering information on opinions.

Knowing what people think about your organization or initiative is crucial to the success you will have. In order to know what people think about something, it is necessary to gather information about their opinions. This section will attempt to show you how to do so.

Gathering information on opinions is the process of finding out where people stand on a particular subject. This is done in a number of ways, and some issues require different ways of gathering that information than others.

Just deciding to gather information on opinions regarding your issue or initiative is a step in the right direction. But before you act, there are some questions that you may want to ask yourself. Your answers to these questions will be the building blocks for your information gathering.

  • Why do you want to know what people think?
  • What kind of information are you looking for?
  • Whose opinions are you trying to measure?
  • What are you going to do with the information, once you get it?
  • How do you gather information on opinions?
  • What are some obstacles you may encounter? And how do you get around them?

For example, your neighborhood organization thinks that there needs to be a new soccer field built for the kids in your neighborhood. It sounds like a very reasonable idea, but soccer fields are expensive and city hall is not necessarily going to act on the suggestion of a handful of residents. This is especially true when those residents do not necessarily represent the diverse community of the neighborhood in which they live. Why should city hall believe your neighborhood organization speaks for the entire neighborhood community?

City Hall may ask you to prove it or at least back it up. In this case you'll want to know if the rest of your neighborhood is behind the idea. If they are, you'll have a better chance of building community support for the initiative. City hall will take your requests more seriously.

A good strategy in this case would be to first find out if there had ever been any other initiatives like yours in your neighborhood, or elsewhere in the city for that matter. You'll also want to see the outcome of those initiatives. You need to find out the opinions of those who live in your neighborhood as well as the opinions of the city officials that will be making the decisions that affect your initiative's success or failure.

Once you decide why you want the information, what kind of information you're looking for, and whose opinions you're looking for, you can begin deciding what you will do when you get it. It is then that you should decide how you are going to get the information. And then try to foresee obstacles and sidestep them.

Let's come back to the key questions above and go through them one at a time.

Why do you want to know what people think?

Are you just seeking knowledge, or do you have a specific purpose in mind? Advertisers gather information on public opinion to see if their advertising is working. If it isn't, they try different strategies. Politicians running for office poll the public to see how they're doing. When the polls show them ahead, they continue what they’ve been doing; when the polls say they’re behind, they, too, try new strategies.

Just like advertisers and politicians you can use public opinion to your benefit. But you can't use it unless you know what it is. There are several reasons you may want to gather information on public opinion.

Are you trying to:

  • Get public support for your organization or initiative?
  • Find out what people think about a controversial program that is already in effect?
  • Win an election?
  • Sell a product?
  • Start a new organization?
  • Raise money?
  • Determine if a program is working?
  • Determine if tenth graders need more geography in their curriculum?
  • Assess community needs or assets?

There are many other reasons why you might be seeking information about what the community thinks, but the important one is the one that describes your particular need.

Once you have figured out your reason... Write it down! This may sound silly, but writing things down is very important; you don't want to waste time trying to remember what you’ve already decided. If you write down the answers to questions as you go, you will save time and trouble.

What kind of information are you looking for?

Naturally, this will depend on your reason for gathering information in the first place. Nonetheless, it is important to clearly articulate what you are looking for. It will make your life much easier when you finally get down to the information gathering stage.

Basically, what do you want to know? Do you want to know what people think of your organization or initiative? Or maybe you’d like to find out if people are even aware of its existence. Your curiosity may be very general or very specific or somewhere in between.

You could be trying to gather information about something as broad as whether or not the general public is aware of the dangers of HIV/AIDS; something less broad, such as whether or not Kenyans feel there should be AIDS education in the public schools; or something more specific, such as whether parents of students in a particular high school are in favor of condoms being available to their children. In any of these cases, the information you want is the information that tells you how people feel about the issue you’re concerned with.

You’ll want to know not only whether people are in favor of your initiative or organization, but whether they’re neutral toward it or opposed to it.  Knowing that most community members oppose your initiative or issue is at least as helpful as knowing that they favor it. People can be swayed, and knowing how they feel is very helpful.  It tells you where you have to start – raising public awareness of the existence of the issue, perhaps, or education about its impact or importance – in order to bring the public to the point of support.  Gathering information can be a tool for learning how to approach the community.

You should be most cautious when you discover that public opinion is neutral about your initiative. (Think about the fact that the outcomes of many democratic elections hinge on the opinions of undecided voters.) Although neutral public opinion suggests that there is not a lot of support either for or against your initiative, it may be hard to tell which way public opinion will go once you start introducing your program. You have to prepare the community carefully, so that by the time you actually start your action plan, the public is at least willing to give it a chance, if not actively behind you.

Whose opinions are you trying to measure?

Do you want to know what the average Joe thinks about your initiative, or do you have a more specific target population in mind? The scope of whose opinions you are trying to measure may also vary from very general to very specific.

For example:

  • If you are one of the president's advisors just before an election you may wish to know how the public feels the president is doing
  • If you are looking for city funding for a new park you may want to find out how your community feels, but also how the city counselors feel about funding new parks
  • If you are thinking of starting up an English literacy program for Latinos in your community to be held on Sundays, you may want to find out how the Latino community feels about English literacy programs and meeting on Sundays

In addition you may find it necessary to gather information on the opinions of specific groups such as leaders, experts in a field, men, women, minorities, residents in a specific area, age, socioeconomic group, or occupation.

For instance, if you are thinking of seeing a movie, do you check what movies the nine-year-olds are raving about? Of course not; you check what the experts are saying (movie critics), and ask your friends what they thought of the movies you’re interested in.  If you are not careful about whose opinions you are listening to, you may end up seeing more movies about extremely large turtles with exceptional verbal and martial arts abilities, and fewer movies like Casablanca.

What are you going to do with the information, once you get it?

So you've got the information you wanted. Now what?

Getting the information is a large part of the battle, but it's not everything. To have gotten this far, you have already shown that you know why you wanted the information, what kind of information you're looking for, and who you want it from. Now what are you going to do?

  • You could use the information to develop strategies to build public support for your initiative
    • Information on opinions can form the basis of press releases, commercials, etc.
    • When properly presented information on opinions can keep issues on community agendas
    • Public opinion can reinforce the views of your supporters and weaken those of your opponents
  • You may have been mandated by a funding source to measure public opinion of your organization/initiative to receive continued funding. Or maybe you're seeking funding and felt that conducting a needs assessment based was the best way to show that people in your community feel that there is a need for the services your organization/initiative provides.
  • You may have just been curious and not have had any plans to do anything. If the opinions are supportive you may pat yourself and your initiative on the back, and if they're not you may just sigh and say "oh well." But then why would you have wasted all your time and effort gathering information you were not planning to use?

Remember: Have a clear idea of how you will use the information before you bother getting it. Gathering information on public opinion is only helpful if you use it.

The Anystate Public Schools District is considering changing its curriculum so it is doing a "needs assessment" within the schools. The Anystate School District may want to find out not only what the children need but what their parents feel they need.

Suppose the suggested new curriculum included studying geography, a subject that had never been taught in the Anystate Public School District. It would be helpful to try to determine if parents feel their children should be studying geography. They might feel, for instance, that it is unnecessary and it takes away too much time from instruction in reading and math.

The needs of the children, in this case, would be easy to measure. The children could be given tests in geography. If a large percentage of children could barely locate the continents, let alone identify all the countries of South America or Europe, it may become clear that children in the Anystate School District would benefit from geography classes.

Differences in how parents perceive their children's geographical knowledge and their actual knowledge could be compared, and this information would be helpful in educating parents as to the need for such curriculum changes.

How do you gather data on public opinion?

Where should you look first? Good question. Remember, you are trying to make your life as easy as possible while gathering as much good information as possible.

Look at existing sources

Once you have a pretty good idea about what you are talking about and what you are looking for you will want to start collecting information. You should start looking to see if anyone has tried to do whatever you are trying to do in the past. The exact information you are looking for may be just sitting there waiting for you in a neat package. Government media archives and files, the records of other local organizations, national or local polls – all of these may contain some of the information on public opinion that you’re looking for.

Without such luck you will want to ask around.

Whom should you ask about public opinion?

You will probably have the most luck asking government agencies and non-profit groups. When you contact those agencies, remember to be friendly and patient on the phone. You are the one looking for information. A friendly attitude will usually get you either the information you are looking for, or at least a contact name or transfer over to someone who can help you. A poor phone attitude will probably not get you anything other than frustration.

Private for-profit companies may be less willing to help out, although you never know unless you ask. The same phone friendliness applies.

You may want to check out sources such as:

  • Government, universities, planning and marketing companies
  • Community service organizations like the United Way
  • Public interest organizations (such as environmental or business groups, consumer advocates and anti-crime organizations)
  • The Internet – the Internet is full of information - just be careful to make sure the sources of information are credible.

You may also want to get the opinions of leaders and specialists in your community as well as the general public.

It is always a good idea to check with journalists that may share an interest in your issue, or large service agencies, universities, and foundations. Someone is bound to know of on-going public opinion research relating to your issue if any is occurring. Checking the local or community newspaper can often give you a good sense of how the local population feels about something, just from the tone of stories and editorials, or from quoted comments.

Leaders in your community:

  • Action leaders may help you get other people in the community to do things
  • Opinion leaders can help shape the views of others in the community
  • Representative leaders such as elected officials represent your community to the outside world

Specialists in your community have specific knowledge about your issue:

  • If you really want to know how serious the AIDS problem is in the United States and the rest of the world you might ask the the National Institutes of Health or the World Health Organization

The general public:

  • If you want to know how the general public perceives the problem you would just ask the average person on the street. Whether or not their views on the subject are accurate, their opinions are still important. Policy is often made when politicians listen to the views of their constituents rather than those that know how some things truly work.

By cross-checking the opinions of the experts and those of the general public you will be able to see where great divides in knowledge about an issue exist. For example, a city may institute meningitis screening for students in its school system if a case is discovered. This may be done for all the children, even though many of the students may have had virtually no contact with the affected child, and health experts explain that there is no danger. The worry of the parents may cause the school system to act regardless of what health experts have to say.

In Summary

Anticipate obstacles that may occur. Things don't usually run perfectly, and anything can and sometimes does happen. Be prepared to overcome possible obstacles. A hurdler doesn't worry about tripping over hurdles; he or she hurdles them. You must be prepared to also. Though, once again, it will help if you have a plan.

Robert Kramer
Eric Wadud

Online Resources

Ensuring Quality in Public Opinion Research comes from the Center for Marketing & Opinion Research, and this website provides information on how to collect quality information in public opinion research.

The Gallup  website provides news reports based on continuous polling of individuals across the world in 160 different countries.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly of Public Opinion Polls provides detailed information on different kinds of polls and their accuracy in measuring public opinion.  The bottom of the webpage provides several sources for further information.

Methods of Measuring Public Opinion – This article by Russell G. Brooker and Todd Schaefer provides information on different methods to measure public opinion.

The Pew Research Center is a nonpartisan fact tank that conducts empirical social science research on a variety of topics.

Polling Report provides trends on American public opinion regarding a variety of topics including national security, elections, and “issues”.

Public Opinion Data (UNC The Odum Institute) provides public opinion different data from several different resources.

Yale Public Opinion Resources provides major resources for survey questions and data, compiled by the Yale University Library for the social sciences.

Print Resources

Bailey, K. (1994). Methods of social research. The Free Press: New York, NY.

Homan, M. (1994). Promoting community change: Making it happen in the real world. Pacific Grove: CA. Brooks/Cole Publishing Company.

Lake, C. (1987). Public opinion polling: A handbook for public interest and citizen advocacy groups. Island Press: Washington, DC.

Oskamp, S. (1991). Attitudes and opinions. Prentice Hall: Englewood Cliffs, NJ.

Price, V. (1992). Communication concepts: Public opinion. Sage Publications: Newbury Park, CA.