Focus on What's Important:
Key Activities

Activity 1 of 8

Summarize Needs and Resources Assessment

As your team gets ready to set priorities, it may help members to review what you learned from assessing your needs and resources.

Options for Reviewing
  • Prepare a summary or overview to present to your team.
  • Have members review what was shared with the community (e.g., community presentations, fact sheets, reports, local media stories).
Helpful Tips
  • Use the Rankings model as a framework for sharing what you’ve learned. For example, if you discovered that there are few healthy food outlets in your community, use the visual of the Rankings model to show that data as part of “diet and exercise” health factors.
  • Zero in on the biggest opportunities for improvement. For example, obesity is an issue in most communities. Digging deeper into obesity by population groups and zip code/neighborhood can help you focus where there’s greatest need.
Activity 2 of 8

Determine Your Guiding Question

As you begin your priority-setting process, it may be helpful to focus your team on a guiding question. Frame your guiding question to reflect the most important elements of your vision and mission. 

Your guiding question will help you keep the big picture in mind as you select priorities, and can act as a good check on your final selection of priorities.

Are you striving for the quickest improvement in health, the greatest impact on health in the long term, the greatest improvement for vulnerable populations, and/or the most efficient use of resources?

Goal Sample Guiding Question

Quickest improvement

Where is the “low hanging fruit”?

Greatest impact on health in the long term

What factors most influence health?

Greatest improvement for  those most affected by conditions of poor health

What is the change community members most want to see?

Most efficient use of resources

How can we create a more aligned, coordinated, and coherent approach to improving health?

Suggested tools:

  • Your team’s vision and mission statements

Activity 3 of 8

Brainstorm Possible Priorities

Getting to the most important priorities starts with generating a list of possible priorities. Brainstorming is an effective and simple way to come up with this list with input from your whole group.

Benefits of Brainstorming

Traditionally, brainstorming exercises start with a question or problem, and participants respond with whatever comes to mind. This is a great place to use your guiding question(s). A recorder writes down the comments made on a large piece of paper or whiteboard, so everyone can see them.

Choosing priorities is challenging. It’s not uncommon to feel like everything is a priority, but it’s important to recognize that your resources are limited and being selective about the number of issues to focus on will help you successfully make changes in your community.

The number of issues you can address will depend on the people power you have available. Strong, multi-sector partnerships with the commitment and capacity to tackle multiple areas may be able to organize multiple action teams around different health priorities. Other communities may choose to work on a single complex problem (e.g., teen pregnancy, high school dropout rate). Consider your readiness to apply a Collective Impact approach to coordinate work across teams toward a shared vision.

A few tips
  • We recommend focusing on no more than five priority areas, but the number will depend on your resources and whether you can add to ongoing efforts in your community.
  • It is better to pick fewer priorities and succeed than to choose too many and find you can’t be effective in any of them.
  • The most important rule for brainstorming is not to evaluate ideas--the more ideas the better.
  • Consider an alternative to traditional brainstorming, such as having participants brainstorm individually before the group activity then later sharing them with the group or asking them to review the data and guiding question ahead of time and come prepared with their ideas of two to three issues on which to focus.¹
  • Record the ideas where everyone can see them, or alternatively, use the Affinity Diagram process to generate ideas on sticky notes and group them in categories.
  • Be sure you involve people from across your community in brainstorming, including employers, community advocates, health care and public health professionals, government officials, grantmakers, policymakers, educators, nonprofits, and others. Most importantly, include community members, including those who are most vulnerable and are experiencing the worst conditions for good health (such as members of low-income communities and youth).

1.    National Association of County & City Health Officials. Phase 4: Strategic Issues In-depth Guidance. In: Mobilizing Action through Planning and Partnerships (MAPP) Framework. Washington, DC: National Association of County & City Health Officials.

Activity 4 of 8

Prepare to Prioritize

It’s important to remember that no one priority-setting method is best all of the time. A good priority setting process will clearly define your criteria for comparing options, the processes you’ll use to prioritize options, and how you’ll make final decisions.

Your decision will depend on the size of the team you’re working with, the amount of time you have, and how much community participation you want. 

Criteria for comparing options

Criteria express the values, standards, and basic ideas your team will consider when making choices and deciding priorities.1 Try to limit yourself to no more than four or five criteria to select your priorities.

Keep your guiding question handy as you think about criteria.

Following are some questions to help you identify potential criteria:

  • Who is affected?
  • How many people are affected?
  • Are there groups that are affected more than others?
  • Where are the greatest opportunities for improvement?
  • How severe are the effects? Based on the County Health Rankings model, how much does this issue contribute to health outcomes?
  • What are the consequences of not intervening?
  • Are there strategies that have been shown to effectively address this issue?
  • What does the community think? Do they support this issue?
  • What do policymakers think? Do they support this issue?
  • What assets and resources can partners bring to address this issue?
  • How long will it take to reach an outcome?
  • What are the potential negative impacts of addressing the problem?
  • What has been tried before? What were the barriers and successes of those attempts?
Processes to prioritize options

First Things First: Prioritizing Health Problems describes five prioritization methods:

  • Multi-voting – use when you need to narrow down a long list of issues to a top few.
  • Strategy grids – use when you have limited resources but want maximum impact.
  • Nominal Group Technique – use when you want to generate many ideas in a short time with input from many people, and you want to reduce the final list of ideas.
  • Hanlon Method – use to generate an objective list of health priorities based on baseline data and numerical values.
  • Prioritization Matrix – use to evaluate ideas against a large number of criteria or when you want to focus on only one priority health issue.
Roles and processes to make the final choices

The Role of a Facilitator suggests some factors and options to consider when deciding the process you will use to make group decisions.

  • The number of participants. If you have a large group, you might consider using smaller “break-out” groups.
  • The level of participation you want to ensure. If you’re concerned about participation, giving participants time in the agenda to write down their thoughts may be a good strategy.
  • The background and positions of the participants.
  • How well participants know the subject and each other.
  • The time you have available.²

In addition to a formal process, some communities will take their potential priority issues to the public for their input. There are a variety of ways to get input from the public such as holding community forums, making presentations to various community organizations, and conducting community surveys.

1.    Forest LB, McKenna C, Donovan J. Connections:  A "How To" Handbook for Developing Extension Long-Range Plans and Major Problems. Madison, WI; 1986 April 1986.
2.    MindTools.com. The Role of a Facilitator: Guiding an event through to a successful conclusion. In. London: Mind Tools Ltd; 2012.

Activity 5 of 8

Prioritize the Issues

You can prioritize informally by using your criteria as a general guide and voting on the top issues or follow a more formal process of rating each potential priority issue. 

There area a variety of tools and processes to help you effectively prioritize. If a more formal process is useful you can use techniques like the Hanlon Method or Prioritization Matrix. When decision criteria are subjective and it's critical that you gain consensus, you can use techniques like Nominal Group Technique and Multivoting to help a group agree on priorities. Be sure to allow enough time for full and open discussion after these voting procedures, so that the group doesn’t fall into Group Think, which occurs when the desire for group consensus overrides people's common sense desire to present alternatives, critique a position, or express an unpopular opinion.

Don’t be afraid to take on complex social problems! Focusing on social and economic factors is a big undertaking, but in the long run, it’s these factors that will have the greatest long-term impact on a community, especially for vulnerable populations.

Quick tip
  • Logical order — Present issues in the sequence in which they should be addressed. This is useful where the resolution of one issue is contingent on resolution of another.
  • Impact order — How strategic is an issue? How important are its consequences? How complex is an issue? Resolving easier issues first can build the momentum, teamwork, and consensus that can lead to solutions for more complex, controversial issues.
  • Temporal order — Resolve issues according to a timeline, using information such as coordination with upcoming events. For example, an issue that seems to require a policy strategy may be timed to coincide with the state legislative cycle.¹

1.    National Association of County & City Health Officials. Phase 4: Strategic Issues In-depth Guidance. In: Mobilizing Action through Planning and Partnerships (MAPP) Framework. Washington, DC: National Association of County & City Health Officials.

Activity 6 of 8

Analyze Root Causes

Looking into root causes can help you identify the underlying reasons a problem or issue exists. Exploring why a problem exists can lead you to prioritize community efforts on the factors that most influence health, such as education, employment, income, family and social support, and community safety.

Tips to consider
  • Use The But Why?” Technique to dig deeper into the cause of a problem. Each time an answer is given, a follow-up "But why?" is asked. For example, if you’ve learned from your assessment that teen pregnancy is a growing problem, an answer to “why?” may be that they don’t see a future for themselves. Asking “why don’t they see a future?” may lead to a discussion about the lack of jobs in the area, particularly for youth, which may in turn lead to a focus on education and/or employment.
  • Be sure to work closely with community members, including those who are most vulnerable and are experiencing the worst conditions for good health (such as members of low-income communities and youth), to identify why those conditions exist and what’s most important to them.
  • For more complex issues, you may want to use the Affinity Diagrams for Root Cause Analysis. This can help you identify the basic reasons behind a problem or issue you’re seeing in your community and highlight where you need to start to most effectively address the issues. In using the Affinity Diagram, you may find that several of your potential focus areas have the same or similar root causes.
  • Many communities are using a Collective Impact approach, where organizations from different sectors agree to solve a specific social problem using a common agenda, aligning their efforts, and using common measures of success. However, not all social problems are a good fit for Collective Impact solutions—it’s best used for problems that are complex and systemic rather than technical.
Activity 7 of 8

Finalize Priorities

As a team, review your resulting list of priorities and root cause analysis.

Does it make sense? Does it resonate with your multi-sector members? Will these priorities resonate with the community? If you haven’t sought public input, this is the opportunity to do so. Hold final decisions until you have evidence of community support for your chosen priorities. This is also a good time to review your priority-setting process.

Activity 8 of 8

Communicate Priorities

To ensure that your team and community can successfully act on the priorities you’ve selected, it’s important to communicate your decisions with decision makers and those who influence them.¹

Consider the following questions when deciding how to communicate your priorities.

  • Who must understand and support your plans to address priority issues? Be as specific as possible.
  • Who should tell them?
  • What media or methods should be used to tell them? (e.g., stories, reports, news media, social media)

Visit the Communicate step of the Action Center to learn more about effective ways to communicate your priorities and work.

1.    Forest LB, McKenna C, Donovan J. Connections:  A "How To" Handbook for Developing Extension Long-Range Plans and Major Problems. Madison, WI; 1986 April 1986.