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Section 3. Identifying Targets and Agents of Change: Who Can Benefit and Who Can Help

Learn who is affected by the problem, who can help to improve the problem, and discovering what they can do to assist your organization.


  • What are targets and agents of change?

  • Who are the people who experience or can help to improve the problem or issue (the targets of change)?

  • Who can help with the improvement (the agents of change)?

  • What do agents of change do?

  • How to identify targets and agents of change

What are targets and agents of change?

When doing work in your community, the first thing to decide is what is the issue or problem you want to address. Whether you are teaching kids to read or trying to create safer neighborhoods, it's your group's reason for being; it's what you're all about.

You and your organization are not alone. There are people out there who can benefit and people who can help. That is, there are people to whom your initiative has things to offer and people from whom you can learn and get assistance. We need to be clear about who should benefit--youth and parents, for example--and people who can help address the issue or problem--including youth, parents and guardians, teachers, service providers, and others. Knowing who these people are is an important step.

In this section, we'll help you decide who your organization or initiative is trying to reach -- targets of change -- and who can help you reach them -- agents of change. We'll also consider what it is that these "agents of change" can do, and how you can develop a plan to make sure you have found everyone who can benefit and everyone who can help, and not just the most obvious candidates.

Sounds simple, doesn't it? It is. It's just a question of being clear, complete, and making sure you look at every angle.

Who are the people who experience or can help the problem or issue (the targets of change)?

You're probably trying to change a certain behavior or outcome, such as reducing drug abuse or creating decent jobs. Sometimes, the particular behavior you are changing is clear; other times, the root cause of a given problem or issue is less obvious. Children falling asleep in class, for example, might actually be a direct result of their not having had breakfast, and isn't really a result of any problem in the school itself. Not having enough to eat, in turn, may have less to do with parental neglect, than with the family living in poverty due to inadequate job opportunities. We interview people who experience the problem to gain a better understanding of what conditions and behaviors contribute to the problem or issue.

Like finding the root problem, understanding who you want to target for change can be relatively simple or more difficult.

Generally, targets of change will fall into two categories:

  • Those people who directly experience the problem or are at risk
  • Those people who contribute to the problem through their actions or lack of actions

Deciding who is directly at risk is usually the easy part. If you are trying to increase immunization among inner city children under two years of age, for example, those children (and their parents or guardians and health providers) may be the targets of change. Intravenous drug users (the ones that use syringes) are among the key targets of an AIDS prevention effort, since they are at higher risk for contracting the AIDS virus.

Sometimes, however, the people at risk aren't the same ones you will target for change. It may be that because of some reason, such as age in the immunization example above, the people at risk are not the ones whose behavior you will try to change. Since children under two years of age can't immunize themselves, the targets of change include parents and guardians and health providers. In this case, your targets of change will be those people whose actions (or lack of actions) contribute to the problem.

Examples of these people include:

  • Peers
  • Parents and caregivers
  • Service providers
  • Teachers
  • Business people and merchants (e.g., who sell tobacco, alcohol, or other drugs)
  • Elected and appointed officials

As you work on an initiative, you will want to consider both categories, targets and agents of change. Sometimes, an initiative might be designed to work with both those people who experience or are at risk for the problem, as well as those whose actions (or lack of actions) contribute to the problem.

For example, a community initiative to improve public transportation might use:

  • A media campaign to increase public awareness of transportation problems, targeting those who will benefit from better transportation
  • A letter-writing campaign directed at public officials to influence resource allocations for improved transportation, targeting those whose lack of actions contribute to the problem

Who can help with the improvement (the agents of change)?

Next, you'll want to look at potential agents of change. Who can influence the people and the conditions that contribute to the problem or issue? These are the key individuals or groups who, if they put forth an effort, can help address the issues that matter to your community.

Sometimes, agents of change can be members of the same group as the targets of change you identified earlier. You might concentrate part of your "Healthy Eating" campaign on high school science and health teachers, for example, so that they, in turn, will pass on nutrition information to their students. In this instance, the teachers are the people whose behavior you are trying to change and also the people who can help make improvement happen. Similarly, gang members may be in a position to contribute to reductions in gang-related violence; peers, in a position to influence academic achievement of other youth; and people who have experienced trauma or loss, in a position to help others with similar experiences cope with the effects.

Remember that the success of the change agent is directly related to his or her effort in connecting with the targets. Ideally, people experiencing (or at risk for) the concern are deeply engaged as agents of change. Success happens when people get together, spend time together, care about each other, and are important parts of each other's efforts to make a difference. Teachers will be better agents of change if they have the support of parents, just as parents will be successful agents of change if their efforts are coupled with the efforts of teachers.

What do these agents of change do?

The agent of change can influence others in a variety of ways. If they are working with someone who is directly affected by the problem, they will probably do the following:

  • Establish a strong relationship with the person most affected. If the target of change sees them as someone credible, trustworthy, and caring, he or she is much more likely to confide in the agent of change, and listen to his or her advice.
  • Diagnose the issue or problem. In the classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird, Atticus Finch tells his young daughter she must walk around in other people's shoes if she really wants to understand them. A good agent of change does the same thing. To help someone change unsafe or harmful behavior, she needs to really understand why that behavior is happening.
  • Convince the person experiencing the issue of the need for (and of the possibility of) a change. The change agent might be responsible for convincing someone that her behavior is a problem, that alternatives exist, and that things really can change. A surrogate "big sister" might convince her "little sister" of the importance of school, and of what her opportunities might be if she finishes. She could continue after high school and convince her "little sister" that she is plenty smart enough to get a college degree.
  • Help make that change happen. It's one thing to say you are going to stop smoking. That's a very important first step. But ask any long-time smoker, and he'll tell you that there's a lot more to it than just that. Agents of change don't just convince someone of the need to do something, and then sit back and rest on their laurels. They need to get their hands dirty and support the person who wants to change. The agents can help plan and provide lots of support--both moral and tangible--to get the job done.
  • Help maintain the change. For example, research shows that most dieters end up regaining the weight they have lost within a year. The person making the change will need a lot of support, especially at the beginning, to stick with what she has done. This is true whether someone is trying to go back to school, stay off drugs, or get started with a new job. When the person trying to change has run out of gas, the person supporting him should be there with the gas can.

How do you identify targets and agents of change?

So, the next question is: How can you identify everyone who can benefit and help? A first step is to answer the following questions. Just for your use, you might want to grab a piece of paper and scribble down your answers. Often times, the act of writing something works as a brainstorming technique, and you'll come up with more ideas than you thought possible! You might do this with other members of your group, and with other groups; the more help you get, the better your ideas will be.

  • What is the problem or issue you are trying to address? What really causes it? As we mentioned above, you might want to interview people or do research to better understand the root causes. You might also want to try the "But why" technique. This method examines a problem by asking what caused it. Each time an answer is given, a follow up, "But why?" is asked.
  • Who might resist the changes you want to make? This is probably information you will want to use later; but it might be helpful to have this information in hand from the beginning.

Now, you're ready to decide who your targets and agents of change really are. As you did before, write down and brainstorm answers to the following questions. When you're done, you can pick out the best answers and presto! Your list of targets and agents of change is complete.

For targets of change:

  • Who is affected by the problem? Who is causing the problem? Think carefully here and go beyond the usual suspects. Don't stop with who is obviously experiencing the problem (e.g., children who fail in school, teachers), but think too about whose action (or inaction) is at the root of the problem. For example, parents who don't support their kids' work in school; elected officials who don't hold schools accountable; members of the general public who permit class sizes to be too large to learn in. Write down all of the answers that come up. You can always weed things out later.
  • Who has been previously affected by the problem? Should they still be supported? For example, if you are running a immunization program for children under two, ask yourself if there are older children who never received vaccinations when they were babies who you can reach now.
  • Who are the peers of those affected? If you are focusing on youth violence, for example, you might include all young people in your action plan, and not just those who have already been victims of (or committed) a violent act.

For agents of change:

  • Who has the power to bring about change?
  • Who has the time, resources, and desire to bring about change?
  • Who might be able to make a difference if your initiative is able to convince them?
  • Who has a relationship with the people in whom you want to bring about change? Who do the "targets of change" trust? Who will they listen to?
  • Think about people who were formerly (or are currently) targets. They might be some of the best "agents of change" now. For example, a recovering drug user might be just the person who can really support a current user who is trying to stop; she can empathize with the difficulties of quitting, and won't be seen as looking down on the person with whom she's talking.

For both:

  • Have you thought about people from all parts of your community? Are there different community sectors (e.g., churches and faith communities; schools; businesses) that might become involved?
  • Who does your organization particularly want to target or work with? With whom do you think you can be particularly effective? What contacts do you have that you could use?

In Summary

Identifying targets and agents of change is an important step in your planning process. It helps put the work in context, and reminds you of your part in the greater whole. In doing this, you'll be sure that you are doing what you set out to do--and you're doing so for everyone who can benefit and contribute.

Marcelo Vilela
Jenette Nagy
Stephen B. Fawcett

Print Resources

Fawcett, S., et al. (1996). Preventing child abuse and neglect: An action planning guide for building a caring community. Lawrence, KS: Work Group on Health Promotion and Community Development, University of Kansas.

Green, L., & Kreuter, M. (1991). Health promotion planning. Mayfield Publishing Company.

Rogers, E. (1983). Diffusion of innovations (3rd Ed.). New York, NY: Freepress.

Watzlawick, P., et al. (1974). Change: Principles of problem formation and problem resolution. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Co., Inc.