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Section 3. Gaining Public Support for Addressing Community Health and Development Issues

Learn how to gain public support for addressing community health and development issues.


  • What do we mean by gaining public support for addressing community health and development issues?

  • Why do you need public support for addressing these issues?

  • Whose support do you need?

  • When should you try to gain support?

  • How do you gain public support for addressing community health and development issues?

Public support is often the crucial factor in bringing about changes in local conditions. For many issues, the weight of public approval plays a large role in community improvements. This section is about how to gain public support in order to ensure that an issue is addressed. Additionally, this section discusses how to get issues onto the public agenda, where policy change occurs.

What do we mean by gaining public support for addressing community health and development issues?

Real public support is more than people understanding the issue, or even than a number of people being willing to show up and be vocal at a rally or public meeting. You'll have real public support when most people's response to your issue is "Of course we ought to do something about that. What are we waiting for?"

To get to that point, you have to do your groundwork, the work outlined in other sections of this chapter:

Once you've accomplished these goals, you're ready to convince people of the issue's relevance to them and the community, so that they'll understand that addressing it is their responsibility and that of the community as a whole. When people accept that responsibility, they'll get behind an effort to address the issue. That's what we mean by public support.

Why should you gain public support for addressing community health and development issues?

This may seem like a foolish question, but it's remarkable how often gaining public support is ignored. Many initiatives or organizations seem to feel that their cause is so obviously just and logical that people will support it automatically. They don't see the need to cultivate that support, and as a result, they often don't get it. Then, when they fail to reach their goals, they can't understand why.

Public support is important for a number of reasons:

  • Public support lends credibility to your campaign for community change. It's not just your organization or initiative that believes your issue needs to be addressed, it's the community as a whole.
  • The more support you gain, the more you'll continue to garner. As Everett Rogers points out, in Diffusion of Innovations, once a certain critical mass of adoption of a new idea is reached, that idea becomes the norm. Once your public support reaches that critical mass, your issue will be, as one perceptive human service provider used to say, "like the fire department." No one will question that it ought to be a community priority, or that community resources ought to be devoted to addressing it.
  • You need support for any action you take. The more public support you have, the more your action seems not only reasonable, but appropriate.
  • If you're striving for a political goal - i.e., a change in law or policy - you need the strength of numbers. Public support means that you can apply more pressure to politicians and officials, and that your pressure is perceived as coming from the mainstream, not from the political fringe.
  • Public support means that the community has taken ownership of the issue, making it more likely not only that it will be dealt with, but that it will continue to be dealt with over the long term. Once the issue is in the community consciousness, it won't disappear.

Whose support do you need?

When we refer to "public support," just whose support are we talking about? The ideal, of course, is that of everyone in the community, but there are some particular individuals and groups to aim at.

The better you know your community and your issue, the more effectively you can target the people and organizations whose support is important to your effort. In the book Agenda-Setting (1996), Everett Rogers and James Dearing point out that on the national level in the U.S., there are two factors that virtually guarantee an issue a place on the agenda: mention by the President (especially in a policy address) and coverage by The New York Times. On the local level, that translates to a mention by the mayor or city council, or an article in the local newspaper.

Conversely, lack of attention by a key person or the media can work against the public's perception of an issue as important, which is often influenced by what the media determines to be important. As Dearing and Rogers illustrate, "In the case of AIDS in the 1980s, President Reagan helped delay the rise of the epidemic on the media agenda simply by ignoring it"

So in your work to gain public support, pay special attention to the following:

  • Community leaders and other influential individuals. Clergy, business leaders, people known for service to the community, local sports heroes or media personalities, and citizens with high levels of community credibility all fall into this category. Once you get them on board, many others will follow.
  • Media representatives. The power of the media to further your cause is obvious. If you can enlist some key journalists or media executives, your job will be much easier.
  • People most affected by the issue. Their support also lends credibility to your effort, and gives you a store of firsthand accounts of the issue's effects to use in educating the public.
  • Policymakers. Whether or not you're trying to influence legislation or regulations, it's important to have those who make policy on your side. They can help you keep the issue in the public eye, and their support will gain you that of their supporters as well.
  • Activists. Those who involve themselves in community issues often have a constituency, and know how to make their voices heard.
  • Opinion leaders. In Diffusion of Innovations, Everett Rogers describes these as people who are among the first to try new things or adopt new ideas, and who influence the opinions of others. The more of these forerunners you can attract, the better.

When should you try to gain support?

Gaining public support for your issue is an ongoing process, but there are in fact times and circumstances when a push to gain support can be particularly productive.

When there's a crisis involving the issue.A historic landmark is about to be torn down; the funding for a desperately-needed community health clinic has just been discontinued; the loggers are already starting to clear-cut a patch of virgin forest. Situations like these (unfortunately) present opportunities for gathering public support.

When the issue has reached a point where it can't be ignored. When homeless people are freezing to death in doorways because there are no shelter beds available, or when the number of AIDS cases skyrockets, people are more willing to endorse efforts to address the issues involved.

When the number of people affected by the issue reaches critical mass. At the point where nearly everyone knows, or knows about, someone affected, the public is generally more than ready to champion attempts to deal with the issue.

When new information calls attention to the issue. A university study showing a local increase in a particular condition or disease, or the publication of an Environmental Protection Agency report uncovering the dumping of pollutants into local waterways can solidify support for what you're doing.

When a publication, or a media story not initiated by you, highlights the issue. A new book or an investigative report can raise public consciousness about your issue, and gain you a larger following.

In 1962, The Other America: Poverty in the United States, by Michael Harrington, galvanized public support for what became Lyndon Johnson's Great Society programs. Harrington brought to the fore an issue that most people had ignored or been unaware of, and changed the political climate to create general acceptance for an anti-poverty campaign.

When a crucial event makes your issue more visible. An event that is not directly related to the issue may nonetheless provide an opportunity for building public support.

With the formation of the European Union came international workplace and product standards. Some American manufacturers realized that they might not be able to compete in the international marketplace unless they addressed the basic skills of their workers. Adult literacy advocates seized the opportunity to gain backing for workplace education.

As a result, many manufacturers formed collaborations with adult literacy organizations or others to provide workplace classes in English as a Second or Other Language (ESOL) and reading, writing, and math to workers. The classes benefited workers individually, but also benefited employers by creating a workforce that could better understand and maintain safety and product standards, and could be more adaptable and productive.

When the political time is right. An approaching election, pressure on politicians or officials to address the issue, or a referendum all might make it a good time to build public support.

How do you gain public support for addressing community health and development issues?

If you've been following the suggestions in this chapter, you've been running a communication and public education campaign to ensure that the community is aware of and understands the issue. Maybe you've found a witty slogan or an eye-catching logo that people identify with your effort. Perhaps you've also been discussing possible actions that could be taken to attend to the issue.

Now you're at the stage where it's important to get the public to take personal and community responsibility for the issue. Achieving that will lead both to officials changing laws and policy, and to individuals changing their behavior to address the issue.

Two types of change

Most changes in the community require a change in official or unofficial policy; others require individual change; and some require both.

Changes in policy are needed where they won't happen otherwise. A few corporations and developers pay attention to environmental considerations, for instance, because they are genuinely concerned about them, and because they see environmental responsibility as part of their responsibility to the community. Most, however, would prefer to be left alone to do as they please, and often don't believe in the seriousness of the environmental consequences of their practices. If they're based elsewhere, they may have little commitment to the communities where they operate. In such cases, laws or regulations are needed to safeguard the public and community resources.

Individual behavior change can lead to community change when the issue is one that's under the control of individuals, at least once they have the right information. Quitting smoking, adopting preventive health practices, and making a commitment to buying organic produce are three examples of actions individuals can take that may result in larger changes in the community.

Usually, however, it takes both policy change and individual change to create change in the community. Recycling won't work unless individuals commit to separating their trash and performing whatever other tasks are associated with it. But it also needs community policies that make it possible - and, even better, easy - to recycle. A parent who abuses her child has to come to terms with her anger and learn how to relate to the child in more appropriate ways; but there also has to be a legal mechanism to keep the child from being abused until that happens, if it happens.

Frame the issue properly.

Framing the issue means defining it and its context. You want to cast the issue in a light that will make the largest number of people willing to support it.

  • Frame the issue as mainstream, not extreme or radical, and define it clearly.

Political battles about issues are often over the framing of them. Michael Dukakis lost the 1988 U.S. Presidential election at least in part because he allowed his opponent to define the major issue of the campaign as one of Liberal vs. Conservative, and to define Liberal as "wanting bigger taxes, soft on crime, and with no respect for the middle class and its values." If Dukakis had instead embraced the Liberal label and framed the election's issues in a different way, he might have had a better chance to win.

  • Don't make insupportable claims, or claims that most people would find extreme or counter-intuitive. In an anti-child abuse campaign, for instance, it's probably not helpful to assert that any hitting of a child constitutes abuse. Most people have the experience of having been occasionally spanked or swatted by loving parents, and don't see that as abusive (and have in fact suffered no ill effects from it). Whether or not they use corporal punishment on their own children, they may consider the "any hitting is abuse" stance too extreme to accept.

While you should never make unsupported claims, there are exceptions to the other half of this rule. When you have overwhelming proof that you're right, and your interpretation is necessary to addressing the issue effectively, you may have to confront community prejudices. Many individuals (and communities) find it "common sense" that sex education in the schools gives teens permission to be sexually active. In reality, study after study shows that sex education almost always reduces the level of teen sexual activity, as well as increasing safe sex practices and reducing teen pregnancy. Studies have also shown that "just say no" campaigns against teen sex and drugs are almost totally ineffective.

Sometimes it's necessary to use hard numbers and respected research to try to shake people out of what they "know," and convince them of the facts.

  • Where possible, emphasize common ground and universal or near-universal values. "We all want our children to be healthy." "Everyone needs safe drinking water."

Enlist respected community members as representatives and spokespersons.The list of potential spokespersons is long, and similar to that of those whose support your need, given earlier, with a few additions:

  • Clergy and other faith community leaders
  • Business leaders
  • Activists
  • Local entertainment and sports figures
  • Respected community members. These can include people who have no official position, but who are known for their wisdom, dedication to community service, or other good attributes.
  • Elected or appointed officials who are generally believed to put the public good before their own advancement.
  • Opinion leaders
  • Those affected by the issue, either directly (victims of youth violence) or indirectly (emergency room physicians who treat victims of youth violence.)
  • Recognized authorities on the issue - researchers, academics, professionals, etc.

Make common cause with other groups. Try to draw in other groups that share your concerns about the issue, or that can be convinced that they should.

  • Coalitions.
  • Communities of faith and clergy associations.
  • Neighborhood organizations and other grassroots groups.
  • Agencies or initiatives with purposes or goals similar to yours. A campaign to prevent youth violence, for instance, might find common ground with Big Brother/Big Sister, the schools, youth leadership organizations, and other groups concerned with child welfare.
  • Professional organizations concerned with the issue.

Become the authority. Always do your homework, and be able to counter arguments against your effort. You should know as much as possible about your issue, and should be able to demonstrate why addressing it is necessary, and why it needs to be addressed in particular ways (if that's part of your campaign).

If you can't counter arguments against it, then it may be time to rethink your position. Is some of your thinking inaccurate? It's better to do what's most helpful for the community than to make yourself look good by not admitting that you're wrong.

Take advantage of opportunities. When those events that we discussed above in "When should you try to gain support?" come up, use them. Point out how they demonstrate the need to address the issue. Employ your knowledge and status as an expert to show people what could be done to change the situation. Never let a chance to gain support pass you by.

Use the media. By establishing a mutually beneficial relationship with local newspapers, radio, and TV (including the citizen-access cable station), you can get your message out to the public, and build a base of public support.

Use the Internet. A community website, an on-line forum or chat group or listserv, a large e-mail list - all of these can be effective tools for building community support and keeping people informed. They also provide a fast and easy way to organize supporters for action.

Gain support one individual and organization at a time. Often, public support gets built through many personal contacts over time.

Once you have an individual on board, perhaps you can persuade her to host a house party of her friends and acquaintances to discuss the issue, or to participate in a community presentation. Perhaps she'll just discuss the issue with her friends, who'll discuss it with their friends. You can reach a lot of people that way.

People trust most those whom they know best. You can gain an enormous amount of support, especially in a close neighborhood or small town, just by word of mouth. Don't pass up the opportunity.

Ask people to do something, rather than just telling them about the issue. People are more likely to support you if they can feel effective in doing so. Giving them an opportunity to influence the results of addressing the issue gives them ownership of the process. Some things the public might do:

  • Write, call, or e-mail politicians to advocate.
  • Report instances of abuse, drug dealing, child malnutrition, etc.
  • Join a neighborhood watch or other active group.
  • Change their behavior, if only temporarily: stop smoking for a day, get their blood pressure checked, talk to a homeless person.
  • Go to a meeting or rally.
  • Volunteer, either with a direct service organization, or for an initiative or coalition.
  • Hold a house party or home-based meeting to discuss the issue.

Create activities or events that highlight the issue, and also involve the public. Examples include organizing the clean-up of a vacant lot with volunteer labor, and a "Take Back the Night" evening rally against street violence. Each of these events also implies a follow-up: the first could result in turning the now-neat lot into a neighborhood playground; the second could evolve into a neighborhood watch program or a campaign to reclaim the nighttime streets for the law-abiding.

As your support grows, demonstrate it at every opportunity. Most people want to be in the majority. If they're convinced that supporting you is backing a winner, they'll do it.

Recognize and give awards to community members who do things to affect the issue and demonstrate their support for your work.

  • Politicians who support your cause, and try to change policy accordingly.
  • Community volunteers who work on your issue.
  • Organizations - or their directors or staff members - that do an outstanding job on your issue.

When you give an award or hold a recognition ceremony, be sure to have the media present.

Celebrate accomplishments publicly.

Cede control of the effort to the community, if that's feasible. A community may be more willing to support something that's seen as an indigenous, grassroots effort. You and your organization should remain involved, but not necessarily as the leader of the effort. Whether community control makes sense in your community depends upon the situation, and what needs to be done.

Follow up and maintain support. Once you've gained public support, you have to keep it. Don't take the support of any individual or group for granted, but continue to maintain contact, and to court their backing. Continue also to expand your base of support, adding new people and groups at every opportunity. The ideal here is that every single person and organization in the community will support your effort. You'll probably never reach that goal, but if you try, the chances are you'll develop solid and powerful community support that will make sure your issue is addressed.

In Summary

Real public support for addressing issues is more than simply public knowledge of those issues. Rather, it implies that most people see them as needing to be dealt with as quickly as possible for the good of the community.

Public support is crucial, because it lends credibility to your efforts, helps you gain further support, provides strength for action or political pressure, and creates community ownership of and responsibility for measures to deal with the issue. In order to build that public support, you need support first from key individuals and groups in the community - trusted figures from various walks of life to whom people listen, or whose credibility is high because of their involvement in the issue.

Building public support is an ongoing process - indeed, it should never stop - but can be especially effective when the issue is highlighted by a crisis, or by particular events or situations. New information or publications that draw attention to the issue can also be used to advantage, as can political opportunity. Any time the issue is before the public is a good time to try to enlist community support for addressing it.

Actually obtaining community support requires attention to several concerns:

  • Define the issue. This includes framing it properly, recruiting the right people as representatives and spokespersons, making common cause with other organizations, and becoming recognized as the authority on the subject.
  • Communicate with community members. Use every possible opportunity - both those that present themselves by circumstance, and those that you create - and every possible avenue - the media, the Internet, person-to-person communication - to build public support.
  • Ask people to do something that will help them feel they're having an effect on the issue and encourage them to take ownership of finding and executing a resolution to it.
  • Advertise your support and your accomplishments. Stage activities and events, give awards, celebrate your successes, issue bulletins on the extent of your support. Let the community know that you're a public movement, with a broad community foundation.
  • Give over control of the effort to the community, if that's possible, thereby further establishing your grassroots credentials.
  • Follow up and maintain your support indefinitely.

It's almost impossible to address community health and development issues effectively without broad-based community support. If you can use the strategies suggested here to gain that support, you're well on your way to meeting the health and development needs of your community.

Phil Rabinowitz

Online Resources

3 Tips for Telling Stories That Move People to Action, from the Chronicle of Philanthropy, presents research on how to frame stories about social issues and trains advocates to create change based on that research.

Building Your Online Community & Social Media Presence is a helpful PDF booklet from SCRA, covering case studies, targeting, branding, backchannel, and advocacy. More information, including webinars and training, can be found here as well.

Community-Based Projects Help Scholars Build Public Support. An article about community-based research and public support from LOKA, a non-profit in Amherst, MA.

The Collaboratory for Community Support, an Ann Arbor, MI, research and consulting firm that helps communities generate cross-sector, comprehensive approaches to dealing with community issues.

Engaging Public Support for Teachers' Professional Development, An article from the NEA Foundation for the Improvement of Education (the National Education Association is America's largest teachers' union). A description of some local efforts

Healthy Communities Resources from
Information and links on building healthy communities from Tom Wolff's website.

Print Resources

Dearing, J., & Everett M., (1996). Agenda-Setting. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, Inc.

Rogers, E. (1995). Diffusion of Innovations. New York, NY: Free Press.