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Learn how to recruit the people in your community whose opinions are respected and whose support is needed to make changes.


  • What do we mean by influential people?

  • Why involve influential people?

  • How do you identify and meet the influential people in a community?

  • When do you involve influential people?

  • How do you involve influential people?

So much of what we do in community work involves attempts to influence people --to continue healthy behaviors, to stop (or at least cut down on) unhealthy behaviors, to volunteer their time or make a financial donation, to attend our events and fundraisers, and so on. When someone has influence, he has some level of ability to sway or induce people into doing what he wants them to do. Influence is something we're always trying to gain.

Luckily for us, we can often find people who already have this strange and wonderful quality and use their influence to our own advantage. Every community, no matter what size it is or how long it's been around, has its influential people --elected officials, business people, religious leaders, or just ordinary citizens --who have a lot of influence when it comes to what decisions get made and how things happen.

What do we mean by influential people?

These are the people in your community whose opinions are respected, whose insights are valued, and whose support is almost always needed to make any big changes. Generally, they're regarded as having a finger on the pulse of the community, able to express the point of view of the public (or some significant portion of the public) and usually having some influence over community opinion.

An influential person may be a formal leader, such as a city commissioner or a well-respected minister, but may also be someone whom people in the community look up to and respect, like the owner of a well-loved local restaurant or a young mother whose activism has earned the trust of the people in her neighborhood. As you might imagine, there are many benefits having people like these supporting your initiative.

Why involve influential people?

So what are the advantages of involving influential people?

  • Influential people may be able to let you know what concerns are held by people in the community.
  • Influential people may be able to let you know how the community will react to your initiative.
  • Influential people may have access to community history you're unaware of that might affect the course of your initiative.
  • Influential people may be able to garner participation in and acceptance and support for your initiative in the community.
  • Influential people may lend some credibility to your cause by being associated with you and your group.
  • Influential people may help you work out specific problems you're having in the community.
  • Influential people may be able to convince people who might otherwise be against your group to support it.
  • Influential people may have access to resources like people, space, equipment, etc. that you might otherwise have difficulty getting.

How do you identify and meet the influential people in a community?

Some key people are obvious. Particular political figures--state representatives, mayors, etc.--become key figures as a direct result of their positions. Other politicians--town councilors, for instance--may be more or less influential, depending upon their constituency and their political savvy. Sometimes it's the politician's aide, rather than the politician herself, who makes important decisions and really has an effect on public opinion. And what about community activists, or members of the business and financial community? How do you tell the players from the bystanders? And how do you get to know the players?

There are certain people in any community--some of whom may be influential themselves--who are likely to know just where the power and influence lies. Among these are, in no particular order:

  • Directors of human service and government agencies
  • Legislative aides
  • Grassroots activists
  • Religious leaders
  • Business leaders and people active in service clubs (Kiwanis, Rotary, Lions, etc.) or the Chamber of Commerce, who are usually members of the business and financial sector
  • United Way directors and Board members
  • Senior citizen activists

The crucial element at all stages of this process is personal contact. That means that if you hope to involve influential people, you and other members of your organization need to be active in different sectors of the community, meeting as many people as possible. As you make contacts, particularly among those in the categories above, you should be asking them "Who else should I be talking to?" Most people are eager to be helpful, and will bend over backwards to demonstrate their knowledge of the community and to help you identify and meet the appropriate people. And it's personal contact with influential people themselves that will ultimately get you their support.

Once you've begun to identify key individuals, how do you meet them? Often, community contacts are the answer. "So-and-so suggested that you were particularly important for me to talk to," is generally enough to get someone to meet with you. Lawmakers--state legislators, local elected officials--are public servants, and usually willing to meet, or have their aides meet, with constituents or those who represent them and their interests. These lawmakers generally have local offices, staffed by aides who may actually be the people you want to get to know, and scheduling an appointment is almost always possible. (Whether you can meet with the lawmaker herself is at least partially a matter of the community: it's much easier to get an appointment with the mayor of a town of 15,000 than with the mayor of a city of 500,000, for example. But a meeting with a trusted aide can often be just as useful, and the aide can get you a meeting with the mayor if that seems necessary.)

The best way to meet influential community leaders--ministers, activists, "natural leaders"--is through other people or through direct recruitment. People tend to trust those they meet through their friends (another reason why being active in the community and meeting as many people as possible are important), and they are almost always flattered to be told that their support will be particularly helpful.

In the final analysis, meeting and involving influential people depends on personal contact and on convincing them to buy into your issue.

When do you involve influential people?

This depends largely on how involved you want influential people to be, but for most purposes you should get them involved early and often. The earlier they are involved, the more sense of personal investment they will have in your organization or initiative and the more fiercely they will fight for your issues and needs.

If your initiative is already well under way, however, don't worry. It's never too late to get influential people involved in your work. No matter at what point you bring influential people into the picture, they can make a positive difference for your work.

Some particularly appropriate points to encourage involvement are:

Special events

This can include things like a day of events celebrating or emphasizing your issue; a fund-raising event, such as a foot race, a party, or a golf tournament; a trip to the State House: all these can be excellent times to involve key people. In some cases (buttonholing legislators on a State House trip, for instance) they might advocate directly for your cause. In others--e.g., participating in a money-raising golf tournament--their mere presence and their contact with others in their peer group might have more impact than what they actually say. In any case, special events are a good time to ask for help from influential people.

Critical points for your organization or issue

These are the times when a lot is at stake, and when influential people can be extremely helpful. They can advocate with legislators, help inform the community of the problem, defend your organization from attack, rally community support, and, sometimes, actually produce funds to stave off a financial crisis.

Concentrated campaigns, either for public awareness of the issue, or for funds

Here's where your influential friends' influence comes into play. Depending on their sector of the community, they can help lend credibility to your message or organization, help to get the message out to parts of the community you might otherwise have difficulty reaching, and convince their friends that you're a worthy recipient of their contributions.

How do you involve influential people?

Consider who the influential people are that you'd like to get on board

Think about the influential people who are already involved or who have shown themselves to be supportive of your work. Brainstorm about ways you can get them more involved as well as ways you can make connections with influential people you haven't yet met.

One thing you can do in figuring out who influential people are is to use the "snowball" technique. This simply means asking the people you know who are influential people to suggest other influential people in the community with whom you might consider connecting.

Some influential people might include:

  • Local agency board members
  • Local law enforcement
  • Religious leaders
  • Local government and political figures
  • School administrators, teachers, PTA members, school board members (including school folks is especially advisable if your target population includes youth or your issue involves education)
  • People involved in political campaigns
  • Directors or staffers of health and human services agencies
  • Local media representatives
  • Local business people--goodwill, opportunities for name recognition, and product promotion, exposure to other business people in the community.

Determine their interests and how you can appeal to those interests

Find out what's important to these folks. Later on, you can use this information in persuading them to get involved in your organization or coalition.

The simplest way is by asking them what's important to them, of course. You might also want to pay close attention to what other types of organizations and coalitions these people have been involved in. For example, if you are working on a coalition that wants to bring a more culturally diverse curriculum into the schools, you might look at influential people who have supported similar causes, such as multicultural organizations, the local chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, or the leaders of local African American churches. Or you can just take a stab in the dark and hope that your work will appeal to them--and if you can show that your cause is really a good one, you may well be able to do that.

Find ways of relating your goals and activities to what's important to those who hold influence. Appealing to their particular vested interests can be done by showing them how your program can help them accomplish their own goals. Can parallels be drawn between what your organization or coalition does and what's important to the key influential? What sort of "sales pitch" can you use to draw this person into your organization? Some brainstorming can help you come up with common goals between your program and the potential supporter. Coming up with a list of common goals can help you make your "pitch," but you will also need to clearly outline what sort of support you need and make sure that what you're asking for is unambiguous.

Another important strategy in enlisting influential people is to educate them as much as possible about your issue, and to establish yourself as an expert who can be helpful to them. If they see you as someone they can come to for reliable information, they're far more likely to be helpful to you. The same is true for policymakers, who might be the same people, or who might be legislative committee staffers, scholars, or members of think tanks or policy organizations.

If necessary, you can use your own constituents as a pressure group to enlist the support of lawmakers. It's amazing how supportive a legislator or local official can become when 10 or 15 -- or 100 -- people from his district phone or show up in his office with a message about "what the voters want."

Business people and bankers are generally willing to meet and to be helpful, but they have to have a compelling reason. How will your issue affect their business or the future of the community? What will it mean to them and their families, especially if they live in the community where their business or institution is located?

Contact the influential community members and ask for their participation

This can be as simple as making a phone call, in cases where you already know the person, or it might involve meeting someone for a working lunch, sending a formal written invitation to become involved, or wangling an introduction out of people you know who are familiar with the influential person. Generally, more formal methods of contacting people are better when you don't know them as well, or when you're asking for a big favor. Whatever method you choose, be prepared to persuade that person.

Be ready to explain or answer questions about any of the following:

  • How that person can become involved
  • What level of involvement he or she can expect to have
  • Why getting involved in your coalition or organization would fit with the individual's own personal goals and ideals
  • When they can expect to get started --this should be as soon as possible; if you wait too long before having the individual start he may become uninterested or frustrated

Explain the many ways in which they can become involved

There are a number of possible ways that these key people can support your organization or your cause. For example,

  • They can become members of your Board of Directors or of an advisory board
  • They can act as spokespersons for the organization in particular situations
  • They can help raise money
  • They can perform specific tasks for the organization free of charge --legal work, accounting, etc.
  • They can act as liaisons to particular sectors of the community where they have influence--the Hispanic population, the business community, people in public housing, etc.
  • They can advocate with local and state government for funding or support
  • They can lend their names to and help organize events around your issue

Maintain their involvement

There are many ways this can be done, but first and foremost you must show your appreciation to any key influential who takes the time to get involved with your work. Giving public recognition to your supporters is important. Chapter 41: Rewarding Accomplishments has a lot of suggestions on how to show your appreciation to those who give your organization support.

Here are some other general tips on attracting--and keeping--support:

  • Be helpful to others! That way, later on, you can collect on those favors by asking for support.
  • Be sure to give supporters lots of feedback about their efforts. This helps them know how they are being most helpful and ways that they can improve.
  • Most of all, impress them with by showing how good your cause is and how effective your program is in helping that cause. This means showing that your program is needed and effective. Influential people are often busy people, so if they're going to take the time to get involved with your work, they will want to see results. Strategies include letting supporters see that the people the program serves are pleased with the results, being as involved in high-level decision making (e.g., lobbying, campaigning for sympathetic legislators, participating in hearings where rules affecting your group are being considered, etc.) as possible.

In Summary

Influential people can provide an immense boost to the work we do in improving our communities. The simple fact is: to make real changes, we need to involve the people with the power. By understanding who they are and how to include them in our efforts, we greatly improve the chance that our work will succeed. And that puts us on the road to becoming influential people ourselves--the kind people come to when they want to get things done.

Bill Berkowitz
Jerry Schultz

Print Resources

Brown, M. (1994). How to Recruit People to Your Organization. Cambridge, MA: Brown, M.

Homan, M. (1994). Promoting Community Change: Making it happen in the real world. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole.