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Section 4. Using Community Sectors to Reach Targets and Agents of Change

Learn how to use different sectors based on common social, political, economic, cultural, or religious interests to help you reach Targets and Agents of Change.


  • What do we mean by community sectors?

  • Who are the targets and agents of change?

  • Why use community sectors to reach targets and agents of change?

  • How do you use community sectors to reach targets and agents of change?

An outreach worker, hired to help establish an English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) program in a community with a large Portuguese-speaking population, was having difficulty contacting potential students. Partially because of the language barrier and partially because he was an outsider, his efforts at outreach fell flat.  He knew he needed help.

The outreach worker decided to contact the people who ran the two major social centers in the community: the soccer club and the Catholic church. The director of the soccer club and the priest were both happy to see him, and acknowledged that there was a real need for ESOL services in the community. Both told him to schedule an informational  meeting – they’d see to it that there was an audience.

The priest described the ESOL program and its benefits from the pulpit on two successive Sundays, and urged people to attend the meeting.  Going a step further, the director of the soccer club approached numerous individuals who needed the service and issued a personal invitation to the meeting to each of them.  He also introduced the outreach worker at the soccer club, where he was able to describe the program and share a beer with many potential students.

By the time of the meeting, word had spread in the community, and the hall was packed. Over 40 people signed up for classes, and many promised to bring their friends as well.  When the classes began several weeks later, they were full from the beginning.

This story is true, and is a perfect example of using community sectors – in this case, the religious and the cultural/recreational – to reach the people you need to reach.  We'll briefly examine who targets and agents of change are and then explore how to reach those folks through the sectors of the community to which they listen or belong.

What do we mean by community sectors?

Community sectors” can mean a number of different things.  In some cases, it describes broad categories – the public and private sectors, for example, referring respectively to those individuals and organizations that have to do with government in some way and those that don’t. Sometimes, the term “community sector” means community-based organizations, institutions, and initiatives, as opposed to those operated by state government, national or international groups, or large corporations.

In this section, when we refer to “community sectors,” we’re pointing at the various groups that people in the larger community might be divided into for reasons of common social, political, economic, cultural, or religious interests.  In some cases, membership in a sector may be conscious (business people as part of the “business sector,” for example.)  In others, people may not think about their membership (parents may not think of themselves as helping to make up the “education sector.”)  Many individuals may belong to, or have contact with, several of these sectors; others may be considered only in relation to a single one.

So what are these sectors?  We’d be hard pressed to name all the sectors that exist in all communities, but there are numerous categories that are common in most communities in the developed world, and in many communities in developing countries as well:

  • Health. This includes medical and mental health professionals (doctors, nurses, psychologists and psychotherapists, physical therapists, etc.), pharmacists and pharmacies, hospitals and other in-patient facilities, clinics, non-traditional health practitioners (acupuncturists, chiropractors, massage therapists, etc.), and public health agencies and systems.
  • Education. Public and private K-12 schools, public and private pre-schools, public and private colleges and universities, school committees, school administrators, teachers, other educational institution employees, parents, students, state boards of education, etc.This sector may (or may not, depending on the issue) include adult basic education (ABE) and English as Second or Other Language (ESOL) programs.
  • Law enforcement.  The local and state police, the court system – judges, probation officers, prosecutors, court-appointed defense lawyers, court-mandated programs for offenders, etc.
  • Government. Regional, provincial, state, local, and tribal government bureaucracies, agencies, and officials, both elected and appointed.
  • Business. This sector can range from the self-employed carpenter or mom-and-pop grocery store to the multinational corporation with a local facility.
  • Youth.  Youth themselves (in the U.S., generally viewed as ages 18 and younger) and those who work directly with them (youth violence prevention and outreach programs, Big Brother/Big Sister, Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs, scouting, etc.)  There may be overlap here with the education, parents, human service, culture, and sports/recreation sectors.
  • Parents. Whether parents are viewed as a community sector or not may depend on the nature of the issue of concern. They’re certainly a sector in the case of community-wide efforts that benefit or otherwise affect children, but they may not be seen as a separate group when the issue is care for elders.
  • The media. The media now includes not only newspapers and magazines, radio, and TV, but the vast array of blogs, videos, online news, and other material available on the Internet.
  • Human services. This sector generally includes non-profit professional and volunteer organizations that provide free or affordable services such as job training, food, shelter, elder services, ABE/ESOL, services for individuals with physical or mental disabilities, support and advocacy for immigrants, etc.
  • Religion. Places of worship and their members and religious organizations (e.g., Knights of Columbus, B’nai Brith) of all faiths. If the community is a large city, this sector may include the hierarchy of a national church as well (a Roman Catholic archbishop, for instance.)
  • Service/fraternal organizations. The Lions, Masons, Rotary, Kiwanis, and other local and national or international service organizations. This sector might also encompass college fraternities/sororities or other local and national social clubs, as well as veterans’ organizations and the like.
  • Community activist and volunteer groups. These might be aimed at political issues (engaged in advocacy for or against a particular action of government), supportive of existing institutions (“Friends of” the local park, a school playground volunteer corps), oriented toward economics (SCORE –Service Corps of Retired Executives – a group that volunteers to help non-profits and small business owners with financial and business plans), or more generally concerned with the quality of community life (e.g., block associations, organizers of community festivals.)
  • Culture. The arts community comprises artists of all stripes – musicians, dancers and choreographers, writers, actors and directors, designers, visual artists – as well as arts organizations, theaters, orchestras, museums, galleries, and those who work as support staff in the arts – stagehands, cameramen, electricians, set builders, etc. It also includes regular consumers and supporters of the arts.
  • Housing and development. In this sector, we find both public and private non-profit housing agencies and organizations that provide rent subsidies and/or affordable housing, as well as developers who build market-rate and upscale residential and commercial properties. The sector may thus include everyone from fair housing advocates to those who own and/or manage urban real estate worth billions of dollars.
  • Sports and recreation. This sector might include sports clubs, town or county recreation departments, amateur and professional athletic associations, public and private sports and recreation facilities, the YMCA, gyms, coaches, personal trainers, recreation leaders, and camp directors, as well as those who participate in these groups as athletes, spectators, or supporters.
  • The environment. Individual environmentalists; international, national, and local environmental organizations (e.g., Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth, the Sierra Club, local preservation organizations); conservation land trusts; recreational hunters and fishermen, rock climbers and mountaineers, wildlife biologists and botanists, ecologists, hikers, canoers/kayakers, and other outdoorspeople; hydrologists (water specialists). This sector may also include those who make a living from a pristine or carefully-managed environment: producers of maple sugar, mushroomers, organic and tree farmers, wilderness guides, owners of hotels and B&Bs that cater to those who use – and are located in – wilderness areas.

A conservation land trust is an organization that buys land for preservation or conservation, and/or brokers deals to keep undeveloped land in a conservation restriction (where a landowner, either in return for payment or because he wants to keep the area as it is, agrees not to develop the land, and to put that restriction in the deed, so that the land can never be developed). Land trusts of this sort are usually community-based non-profit organizations supported by public contributions.

  • Agriculture. This sector is usually confined to rural areas, and can involve anyone from shepherds and cowherders in developing countries to family farms to huge agribusiness farms and feedlots in the American Midwest and West. It might also include dairy farmers, cheesemakers, winemakers and vineyards, and food processors and packers. To some degree the agriculture sector includes all consumers of the food produced.

There can be, as we’ve discussed, a large amount of overlap among sectors. Furthermore, the list above is far from complete: a given community may have other sectors because of its specific nature. A community whose economy is almost entirely agricultural, for instance, may have a rice-growing sector, a dairy sector, a fruit-growing sector, etc. A diverse community may have a Hispanic sector, a Vietnamese sector, a Black sector, a Haitian sector, and a number of others defined by ethnicity and/or language.

Sectors exist because of the common characteristics and/or interests shared by their members. As a result, they can be used, as we’ll see, to reach potential targets and agents of change.

Who are the targets and agents of change?

Targets of change

Targets of change are either those whose behavior you want to change or who stand to benefit from the changes your effort aims to bring about. In the first category are both people who will directly benefit from changes in their behavior – smokers who quit, people with high blood pressure who change their diets and exercise patterns – and policy makers, employers, and others whose behavior changes can benefit others (by instituting better workplace safety rules, for example.) We might call these primary targets of change, because, in general, we’re trying to change their behavior directly.

In the second category of targets of change are folks who stand to benefit without necessarily changing their own behavior.  These might include low- and moderate-income families that are able to take advantage of affordable housing, or children whose education is improved by changes in curriculum or by new school facilities. They might be seen as secondary targets of change:  They are the ones who will benefit directly from the changes an effort is trying to bring about, but their own behavior doesn’t necessarily have to change for that to happen.

Some examples of primary targets of change:

  • People with specific health conditions who can control some aspects of those conditions by changing habits or behavior – those with diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, various kinds of chronic pain, or serious weight problems, for example.
  • Consumers of unhealthy products.  Some of the products in question might include tobacco, alcohol, junk food, and products that contain dangerous chemicals.
  • Substance abusers.
  • Youth engaging in violence.
  • People who are unemployed.
  • People who need basic skills or instruction in the majority language.
  • Prison inmates.
  • People who are homeless, either temporarily or over the long term.
  • In the developing world, farmers using unsustainable practices that leave them poorer – and hungrier – year by year.
  • Polluters, both individuals and those in business and industry.
  • Developers, who might create affordable housing, locate in particular areas of need, and build in environmentally friendly ways.

Developers can also be seen as secondary targets of change, if a goal of the effort is to change regulations so that incentives, regulations, or a combination of the two become available to convince them to engage in community-friendly practices.

  • Legislators and other policy makers (school committees, boards of health, regulatory agencies, etc.) that have the power to change laws, policies, and regulations.  That power can alter patterns of discrimination, put healthy food in school lunches, offer incentives for full-service supermarkets to open branches in low-income neighborhoods, increase workplace safety and worker protection, improve education, foster public transportation, and otherwise improve the quality of life for both specific groups and the community as a whole.
  • The media.  Often, convincing the media to take up a cause or to explain an issue to the public can be the most effective way to bring about change.

Some secondary targets of change:

  • People in need of affordable housing
  • Children in poorly-equipped, poorly-run schools (or without access to schools at all)
  • Individuals or groups who are objects of social, economic, or political discrimination
  • People with physical and mental disabilities
  • Individuals or communities without sources of clean drinking water or sanitation
  • Populations with little or no access to health care
  • People who are hungry and/or malnourished
  • People exposed to dangerous substances and/or ailing because of industrial or other pollution, badly designed buildings, or other causes
  • Workers exposed to hazardous substances and conditions in the workplace

Some of these individuals and groups might be seen as primary targets of change as well --  some may be the objects of an intervention designed to teach them to advocate for themselves, for example.  Communities in developing nations, given the proper information, might be able to find and develop their own sources of clean water, build sanitation facilities, or change their farming practices to improve community nutrition.  Many programs aimed at people who are homeless are designed to help them learn the skills necessary to find and keep permanent shelter.  Workers can be helped to use direct action – negotiation, strikes, picketing – to improve workplace safety.  There is, in fact, a thin line between primary and secondary targets of change, and a case can be made that no one should ever be a secondary target.  Change may be most effective when those we call secondary targets are encouraged to participate in solving their own dilemmas and to advocate for themselves with other primary targets as well.

Agents of change

Agents of change are those who can help to bring change about.  In many cases, these agents are policy makers at some level, either in government or in public or private agencies, organizations, or institutions.  In other cases, however, they may be people who can influence those whose behavior your effort is designed to affect.  When you’re trying to bring about major political or policy changes, the agents of change might be the whole community, who can put pressure on politicians and policy makers.

Targets and agents of change are, in many instances – perhaps most instances – the same people.  In order to create more affordable housing in the community, your targets of change might be legislators or a commissioner or minister that sets housing policy.  These same people are also the agents of change, which is exactly why you’re targeting them.

By the same token, agents of change may participate in your effort.  If you can recruit officials, the media, the parents of teens subject to violence, or other change agents as partners, you eliminate the need to target them.  In fact, they can help you influence the appropriate targets of change, and their presence can greatly increase the effectiveness of your work.

Some of the most common agents of change:

  • Legislators and other public officials
  • The media
  • Doctors and other medical professionals (including administrators)
  • Teachers and school counselors
  • Parents and other family members
  • Peers
  • People whose experience gives them credibility (former gang members, recovering substance abusers, etc.)
  • Corporate executives and other business people
  • Community leaders - these may be people with official or unofficial positions, or simply those who are trusted by the community for their intellect, interpersonal skills, fairness, and integrity

Sometimes, a whole sector is the group you want to reach. The health sector, for instance, can be a powerful pressure group if you’re aiming to change aspects of the health care system (or any part of the political system, for that matter.)

Why use community sectors to reach targets and agents of change?

Using community sectors can help to reach people who are associated with a particular sector, as well influence people who are not necessarily associated with the sector used.  Some reasons why you might want to use community sectors in this way include:

  • To reach hard-to-contact populations. Populations that are suspicious of anyone who seems to be “official” or in a position of authority are often difficult to reach out to, even when the purpose of the contact is to their benefit.  Using human service organizations that have already established a rapport with them, or approaching them through their faith community or their own fraternal organizations may be the best way to gain their trust and begin to work with them. Other examples of hard-to-reach populations include immigrants who speak a language unfamiliar to all but a very few in the majority population, and people widely scattered in a rural area and/or living in hard-to-get-to places.
  • To ensure representation from all sectors of the community. It is important to include, in all phases of an effort, everyone who will implement or be affected by it.  By using community sectors to approach potential partners and participants, you can draw from all parts of the community, involving those sectors as well as the people you’re trying to reach.
  • To build trust. Using community sectors means that the individuals and groups you’re trying to reach will first be approached by people they know and trust.  Thus, your relationship with them will begin on a positive note, and you’ll have a better opportunity to build a long-term, trusting partnership.  At the same time, as various sectors are called into play, they may start to work together and develop mutual trust as well.
  • To take advantage of the knowledge of people in different sectors. Contacting people in different sectors will give the effort the advantage of community knowledge – of the history of the issue and past efforts to address it, of personal relationships within the community, of areas of potential conflict, of what’s of real importance to various groups, etc.  This knowledge can serve you well in planning and implementation, and can save you from embarrassing situations that could seriously or fatally damage your work.
  • To bring sectors together. Often, the various sectors in a community, although not hostile to one another, don’t tend to communicate or to work together on community building and problem solving.  By drawing various sectors into your effort, you can help to lay the groundwork for future intersectoral collaboration.
  • To raise awareness of the issue throughout the community. In using sectors to reach targets and agents of change, you also have the opportunity to inform members of those sectors about the issue and spread that information throughout the sector in the ways it has already established.
  • To gain widespread community support. In the same way that working through sectors can raise awareness, it can also help garner support for your effort.  By asking members of a sector to help the effort, you are recruiting them as participants in it.  This may give them a sense of ownership of the effort, and motivate them to support it among friends, family, and colleagues, who, in turn, can spread the word among their networks.  The net result can be support from all parts of the community.

How do you use community sectors to reach targets and agents of change?

Using community sectors will usually work best when you already have contacts in the relevant sectors.  If you don’t have those contacts, however, this is a good time, and gives you a good reason, to make them.  We’ll discuss establishing contacts as we go through some steps you might follow in order to reach the people you want to reach.

Determine whom you need to reach

This first step is tied in with your strategy for the effort.  How are you planning to create change, and whom do you need to influence in order to do so?  If you’re starting an advocacy campaign, your targets may be policy makers.  If you’re providing a service, you’ll want to contact potential participants or beneficiaries.  If you’re seeking to publicize and create excitement about an issue, you’ll probably try to involve the media.

In some cases, you’ll need to reach a number of different individuals and groups.  That advocacy effort might need to aim not only at legislators, for instance, but also at people experiencing the problem you’re concerned with.  Their telling of their own stories may be a much more powerful way of motivating the passage of a new law than anything your organization can do.  In recruiting participants for a service, you might also want to contact teachers, parents, and other individuals and groups that have strong connections with those who might need what you’re offering.

What do you mean by “reach?”

Just as there are different purposes for reaching agents of change than for reaching targets of change, there are different kinds of goals for reaching particular populations or groups. Among the most common of these goals:

  • Send a message. You may simply want to tell people something. (“Research shows that people who participate in the arts live longer and enjoy life more than those who don’t.” “One of every 12 children in this community goes to bed hungry every night.”)
  • Send a message meant to persuade people to take a specific action. (“Call the hotline to report drug dealing, violence, and other crime in your neighborhood. 123-456-7890.”)
  • Send a message meant to change people’s behavior. Falling into this category was a Massachusetts ad campaign aimed at curbing teen smoking. Rather than just screaming “Quit!” these emphasized what smoking does to the skin, breath, and fitness of smokers. The ads proved extremely effective at lowering the percentage of teens in the state who either started or continued to smoke.
  • Attract people to an event. A free vaccination clinic, a job fair, a rally to protest budget cuts, etc.
  • Attract people to a service. Health and human service programs – a job training program, a mental health center, a domestic violence or homeless shelter, a food pantry, adult literacy classes, a community art program, etc.
  • Attract volunteers. These may be needed for an event or program, to staff the headquarters of a community initiative, or to conduct outreach or spread information.
  • Attract public support for an event, program, or policy position.
  • Engage in advocacy or influence policy. This generally involves one of two strategies: Meeting officials or policy makers personally, or putting pressure on them through direct action, the media, or public opinion. In the second case, the people you want to reach are not the officials or policy makers themselves, but whoever can apply pressure – people who’ll participate in a demonstration, the media, those who can spread the word in the community, etc.

So, reaching people may not be as simple as it sounds. In some cases, it’s a matter of simply spreading the word, in others of making personal contact, in still others of literally, or almost literally, taking people by the hand and leading them to where you want them to be. Each kind of action takes a somewhat different strategy, but all are possible by using sectors as the contact points.

Decide what sectors might need to be involved to reach the desired group(s)

You might have to do some research here.  Remember the importance of soccer and the church to the Portuguese community in the introduction to this section?  What sector do the people of concern identify with?  Whom do they listen to and respect?  Who can influence them?

A particular group might best be reached through its religious institutions, another through its schools, and yet another through community elders or leaders.  Elected officials can often be reached through two sectors at once: the political sector (i.e., their colleagues) and the electorate (i.e., the public that will or will not vote for them in the next election).

Other sectors that might help are those that people have contact with every day – businesses, radio and TV stations, schools, etc.  If they can include your message or materials in their regular contact with your target audience, it’s likely that some of that audience will respond.

Determine who in a given sector is the best contact, and establish that contact

Using community sectors to reach people depends on understanding both which sectors those people respond to and which individuals and groups in those sectors are seen as credible and trusted messengers. The fact that a particular agency works with a population doesn’t necessarily mean that its voice is listened to, but there may be individuals within that agency who are listened to. Clergy may be granted high status in many immigrant communities, but a clergy person who has proved feckless or untrustworthy can lose credibility along with that status.

This is where already having contacts in a sector can pay off. If your contact isn’t the right person to reach out to the population of concern, she can probably tell you who is, and perhaps provide an introduction as well.  If you don’t have contacts, now is the time to make some.

Making contacts in various community sectors

The best approach to making contacts is always personal. If you don’t know anyone in a sector who can get you started, look for friends, participants, or colleagues that have connections with leaders or others within the sector you’re interested in, and ask them to make an introduction.  It will be much easier to establish a relationship if you come “recommended” by someone the person you contact knows. If a personal introduction isn’t practical for some reason, you can phone and explain that “Jim suggested I call you,” which can serve the same purpose.

If you can’t find someone who knows a likely contact, you’ll have to rely on a “cold call,” or calling a person you don’t know. This can be made easier by finding out who is the right person to call, and learning what you can about that person before you get in touch with her.  Then, when you call, you can say truthfully, “I think you may be able to help me,” and explain why.  Most people will respond to this kind of approach, both because it’s flattering (it says that your contact is an influential or knowledgeable person), and because people generally like to feel helpful.

If you have no connection at all – no one to make an introduction, no mutual acquaintance, no clue as to who an appropriate first contact might be – your cold call may be a little more awkward.  You’ll have to make a guess as to whom to try first, and you’ll have to be ready to make several calls before you find the right person.

The best strategy is generally to start with someone who is likely to know many of the people you want to reach.  In an immigrant community, this may be a clergy person; in the business sector, it may be the Director of the Chamber of Commerce; in the health sector, a hospital administrator.  In the case of the political sector, a good place to start might be with an aide of your own legislator.  Once you’re on the phone, the “I hope you can help me” strategy is probably your best bet: explain what you need, and ask for help.

A note here:  The reason we assume that a phone call is the medium you’ll use for first contact is that that’s usually the most courteous approach.  Whether you’re asking for a meeting or just looking for information, calling may be considered more respectful and personal than e-mail (though some folks do use e-mail as their primary form of communication nowadays).  It also gives the other person information about you – your interpersonal style, your knowledge of the issue – and allows him to ask questions and tell you about himself as well.  The more personal your approach is, the more likely you are to get the help you need.

Clarify what you’re asking for

Why do you want to reach people?  What do you want me to do? These are the first questions that most people will ask when you contact them, and you should have the answers on the tip of your tongue.  The answer to the first question should include some information about your organization and your effort, why the effort is positive and necessary, what you hope it will accomplish, and a description of the people you want to involve. The answer to the second question can vary from suggesting other good contacts to walking you around a neighborhood and introducing you to people and organizations.

Whatever the answers are, they should be clear, complete, and accurate.  You won’t make friends – or help your reputation – by asking for less than you need and then demanding more later.  Think carefully through what you want people to do, and then ask them to do just that.  If they want to do less, you can negotiate, and both parties will know what they’re getting.

Be creative

There are many ways to use community sectors to reach people.  We’ve largely focused on using a relatively personal approach, either through individuals, such as clergy or social workers, or through institutions, such as the schools.  There are also less direct approaches, such as including a notice about a free blood-pressure reduction program with every receipt at all the pharmacies in the community, or placing a message about the need for adult literacy funding in the programs of arts organizations.

Use the media to reach people through the channels they normally pay attention to

The media sector cuts across all the others as a way to reach a given population. It can be used almost no matter whom you’re trying to reach: it’s just a matter of employing the media outlets that your population of concern is likely to favor. Teens might best be reached through advertisments on music streaming services, for example, or potential volunteers through public TV.

A “sector” to keep in mind is that composed of people you’ve already drawn into your effort as partners, participants in an intervention or program, or change agents.  This isn’t really a sector, of course, since it’s usually a mix of people from different sectors, but it’s incredibly useful nonetheless.  Ask the folks you’re already working with for help in bringing in their friends and acquaintances.  Participants are often the best recruiters for programs, for instance.  Legislators are typically seen as credible by other legislators.

To a certain extent, this process divides people into sectors again, but the folks representing each sector in this case have already bought into your effort.  They’re more likely to pursue people enthusiastically, and to stick to the task.

Keep at it

Recruiting the first few targets or agents of change doesn’t mean your job is done.  Programs and services have to continue to recruit participants in order to serve the community.  Advocacy efforts must persist over the long term in order to maintain and consolidate gains, make sure that the issue remains in the public and official consciousness, and continue to make advances.   Reaching out to targets and agents of change should continue throughout the life of any effort and beyond, if you want to foster real, positive social change in your community.

In Summary

Whether your goal in the community is to spread information, deliver a service, run a program or initiative, improve environmental or social conditions, or pursue advocacy, you’ll have to reach targets and agents of change. One way to accomplish that is to go through community sectors – the parts of the community defined by common interests, purposes, and/or backgrounds.

The business sector, the health care sector, the education sector, the government sector, the religious sector, the banking sector – all of these are familiar to most of us, as are many other sectors. Each has its members, as well as those who are outside it but are influenced by it.

In general, people respond to those they trust and those with whom they know they share a common interest. Business owners may therefore be more inclined to listen to messages from the business sector than from politicians or doctors.  Immigrants might be more attracted to a program if it’s recommended by other immigrants from their group or by human service organizations they rely on. Thus, by using community sectors to contact and communicate with their members and others they influence, you can spread a wide net in the community, and attract a broad range of people to your effort.

Phil Rabinowitz