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Learn how to identify opinions, facts, and information about historical events that can be used to help you choose your advocacy strategies and tactics.


  • What do we mean by conducting studies of the issue?

  • Why would you want to conduct studies of the issue?

  • How do you conduct studies of the issue?

What do we mean by conducting studies of the issue?

A study is the process of gathering information for a specific purpose. Studying the advocacy issue is similar to studies you may have done to help you understand the problem when you began your campaign. They go beyond this however. You want to study the issue as fully as possible and identify opinions, facts, and information about historical events that can be used to help you choose your tactics.

Why would you want to conduct studies of the issue?

You and your group have probably already done some broad research when you were learning about the problem. So why would you want to do any more research?

Here are some good reasons to conduct studies of the issue:

  • With extensive knowledge about the issue, it will be easier to identify your options, opponents, and allies
  • It will help group members get involved in the issue and doing something important
  • It will help strengthen your group's resolve
  • It will increase your group's credibility
  • With specific knowledge, you can present your arguments more forcefully and effectively
  • Both doing and communicating the results of well-rounded studies will increase your likelihood of success

How do you conduct studies of the issue?

There are a number of ways you and your group can conduct studies of your issue. The two main approaches are to use existing data and to generate your own data. In most cases, you and your group will do a little of both--gather all the information you can on you issue from existing sources, then conduct your own studies to collect information on your issue that was not available.

Documenting the issue using existing data

As we've said before, there's no reason to make any more work for yourselves than is necessary. Conducting studies of the issue is one area where you and your group may find that some of your work has already been done for you. There's plenty of studies that have already been done on a variety of issues, so in many cases you and your group just have to determine were the information you need on your issue is located.

What kind of organizations may have the information you are looking for? Well, ask yourselves the following questions:

  • Who "sells" your community?
  • Who does business in your community?
  • Who serves your community?
  • Who has already stated a particular concern about an issue in your community?
  • Who is studying or has studied you community in the past?

What other communities have done

You or someone in your group may have already heard about an advocacy group in a neighboring community that had a problem with one of their major industries dumping untreated waste into the river. Now a similar problem seems to be developing with a pet food processing plant in your community. One of the first steps you and your advocacy group should do is find out; "What did they do about it?" Many times, someone in another community is dealing with or has already dealt with your issue in the past. You and your group can ask these people what they did in their advocacy campaign and how they did it. You can find out what was most effective, what did not work, and possibly what went wrong with the things that didn't work. Most people willing to share all this information. After all, the issue is important to them - and who knows? - next time it could be them asking you and your group for information.

More potential sources of information about your issue

  • The local media - the library will have many current subscriptions and files of major newspapers, magazines, etc. Special reports published by periodicals are one example of a valuable resource for information about the background of your issue. They may treat an aspect of your community in depth, such as an influential leader or some major economic force that affects your community
  • Issue papers, study reports, annual reports - these are special reports issued by groups such as public interest groups, business organizations, social services, and others that are released to the public. Who publishes the report depends on the nature of the information you are looking for. For example, The Sierra Club would produce such reports on environmental issues, while banks or development corporations might have economic profiles of your community
  • Existing surveys - local and state government organizations usually have a wide variety of survey data available. Some of this is available in larger city or university libraries. You may be able to obtain other data by calling the people who are responsible for conducting the surveys.
  • Archival records - these also contain many government and private records of information. The agency that collects the information usually keeps it in storage for a number of years after they use the information

Generating New Data

Once you and your group have gathered all the information you can about the issue from existing sources, you may want to get some more specific information about various aspects of you and your group's issue. You may not find everything you need to know about your advocacy issue from existing sources.

You and your group may want to try the following techniques for studying your issue:

  • Community leader survey - an interview or a survey with leaders in your community can provide valuable insight into you and your group's advocacy issue. Community leaders help shape the opinion of, and have influence over, community members. They can provide you with information that you might not otherwise be able to obtain. Thus, it's a good idea to involve leaders who may not only have information themselves but have contact with other people who may have insights into the community.
  • Community opinion survey - this can be a standard mailed or telephone survey conducted by your group on the issue. This method can provide your group with a large amount of information about your issue with little expense in time or money.
  • Personal interviews - generally, the personal interview will provide your group with high quality and highly detailed information about the issue. They also require more time and money to conduct the interview and analyze the results.
  • Focus Groups - a focus group is a moderator led small group discussion conducted for the purpose of data collection. Members of the group are selected based on their representativeness of your community. The moderator keeps the discussion on track and makes sure all members have a chance to express their opinion.
  • Guided discussions - this can be either a face-to-face discussion (ideally) or by telephone with community members. Members of your group should have a set of questions to guide the discussion, but the idea is to let the conversation flow naturally on the issue you are studying.

Guidelines for collecting data

One important thing in the collecting of data that you must keep in mind is that you should be extremely careful about the source of any facts and figures you use. You will probably be up against very well-informed and well-financed opponents. If there's anything wrong with your facts and statistics, you can be sure they will find it out.

As you begin gathering information, keep in mind these guidelines from the Children's Defense Fund:

  • Use data from official sources only. For example - The local board of education, the U.S. Census Bureau, or other government agencies; trade or professional organizations. Take figures from other advocacy agencies and never from the media.
  • Check your numbers, then check them again. It only takes one error to give your opponents permission to throw your entire argument out of the window and undercut the credibility of your whole organization.
  • If possible, don't rely on outside "experts" to analyze data. The most polished report isn't going to do you much good if you can't explain where the figures all came from or what they mean. If you need to hire someone (for example, from a local college), make sure you understand what's being done every step of the way.
  • Keep figures simple. Most people will understand rates and percentages. Anything more complicated is likely to make the general audience glaze over or turn the page. Of course, if you're making a presentation to experts, you can be as complicated as you like -- as long as you understand what you are saying.
  • Try to show change over time. If your issue involves keeping track of factors that change (like increased pollution, homelessness), use as many points in time as possible, over a period of years. A good suggestion is at least two points in time separated by at least five years.
  • Use the most recent data you can get. You're not going to make impression if you come up with a dramatic reading based on figures from eight years ago. If you can't get current figures, and the ones you use are more than one or two years old, be sure to identify them as "the most recent data available."
  • Always try to use data that show how some intervention will make a difference. If things look hopeless, you're not likely to get people galvanized into action. Try to emphasize the fact that improvements can be achieved. This is one case where it's useful to borrow examples of successful programs from other communities or organizations.

Other tips for gathering your own data:

  • Don't get too ambitious. Reliable, limited data is much better than sweeping statements you can't quite back up.
  • If doing a survey, get help from someone with statistical savvy - a graduate student from the sociology department of your local college or university.
  • Use graphs. They can make your case stronger, but need to be used with care.
  • Use real life. Always try to give your case a human face. As politicians know, a good anecdote is worth a ton of data.

In Summary

So now you're prepared to start conducting studies of the issue. Remember to check and double check when your work is done, and never use a fact or figure that hasn't been checked and re-checked. Far better to use no figures at all than to present some that can be shot down in minutes.

Prue Breitrose
Eric Wadud
Marcelo Vilela

Online Resources

The Applied Research Center is an activist think tank and research lab. They have published reports in a variety of areas, including welfare reform, many of which are available on their website or through links.

Common Cause is one of the major consumer/government/corporate watchdog organizations.

The International Center for Research on Women contains information on the research the organization is doing, as well as actual reports on past and ongoing studies.

The How to do Research website from Napa Valley College provides a guide on planning research and carrying it out.

How to do Research (from Macquarie University) provides a guide for beginning research in several different contexts, which can be applied to advocacy research. 

Print Resources

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

Bobo, K., Kendall, J., & Max, S. (1996). Organizing for social change: A manual for activists in the 1990s. Chicago, IL: Midwest Academy.

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

Michigan Community Health Assessment (1995). Forum II handbook: Assessing health Status, risks, resources and determining priorities. Lansing, MI.