Act on What's Important:
Key Activities

Activity 1 of 10

Important Information About This Guide

Act on What's Important focuses on promoting policy, systems, and environmental changes to improve community health for the long term. This step provides support and guidance on advocating for change at a population level.

We know programs also play an important role in creating healthy communities. Whether you are advocating for a policy change or implementing a programmatic intervention, this guide will help you develop an action – or campaign – plan.

Effective campaign plans have multiple components including things like:

  • Decision-maker analyses and outreach
  • Coalition building that includes residents and partners from multiple sectors
  • Grassroots development
  • Media advocacy
  • Internal and external communications
  • Fundraising/resource development

The Key Activities in this step provide guidance on these different components and offer tools to help you work through each of them. They will help you move from your broad goal to specific, measurable, achievable, realistic, time-determined (SMART) objectives, and then to even more specific tactics or action steps. 

The guidance here is arranged in a linear fashion, but this is not a linear process. Many of these activities take place at the same time. You may also find yourself moving back and forth between many of the activities.

Activity 2 of 10

Develop a Strategy to Take Action

Once you’ve identified what policy change you want to promote or program you want to implement, the next phase of the work is to develop a plan and to take action.

The first step is to create a clear strategy that will help focus and guide your planning efforts. Ideally, this strategy is the result of collaborative input from those who will carry out the plan, and includes those who are most affected by inequities in health opportunities and outcomes in the community. The Midwest Academy Strategy Chart provides a framework for developing a “campaign roadmap” that can help a group decide which steps to take and when. This tool can be used to develop both your overall campaign strategy and to plan specific tactics that are part of the larger strategy.

Another planning option is the Advocacy Progress Planner, an online campaign planning tool that guides you through identifying your long-term goal, segmenting your audience, selecting specific strategies and tactics, and identifying benchmarks to evaluate progress along the way.

Effectively communicating with multiple audiences and through a variety of means will be an essential part of your campaign. The Smart Chart 3.0, from Spitfire Strategies, can help you hone your communications goals and craft a strategic plan to achieve them. In each area within the Smart Chart, include at least one equity-related goal, strategy, objective, or activity. It's important to ensure that you are considering equity throughout the process. 

Although policy campaigns can be impacted by a variety of external variables (e.g., media attention on other issues, unexpected opposition strategies), a solid plan can help you anticipate and react to challenges along the way.

Activity 3 of 10

Develop a Resource Plan

Implementing your plan will require resources – people, materials, meeting space, and money, among other things. The next step is to create a plan for securing the resources needed to support your campaign plan.

When developing your resource plan you can begin by identifying what assets are already available in your community. Among these, people are your most essential resources. The activities and tactics needed to accomplish your goals are a critical part of campaign planning, and so, too, is knowing who is going to actually carry out those tasks. Look over the activities you laid out in your action plan and ask:

  • Do we have a good combination of leaders and workers?
  • Do we have all of the job descriptions? Social media? Fundraising? Campaign Manager? Do we have the right people in those positions?
  • Is the coalition organized in a way to ensure action and communication are effective and efficient (e.g., workgroups, subcommittees, etc.)? 

Partnerships sometimes focus so much on monetary support that they overlook the tremendous resource opportunity of in-kind donations and leveraging resources that other organizations or partners already have. In-kind donations can go a long way in helping you meet resource needs. Create a wish list and give it to partners. Maybe an organization doesn’t have money, but they have meeting space, staff time, office supplies, volunteer recruitment power, catering connections, or other in-kind contributions. Let potential contributors find creative ways to meet needs.

In addition to people and in-kind support from member organizations, your campaign may need money for a range of items such as conducting assessments, lobbying, and paid media.

Funding alone doesn’t ensure a group’s success, but depending on the breadth of the effort it can be critical. The Funding Guide: Securing Additional Resources for Community Health Improvement provides tools and resources for identifying and accessing funding resources for your community health initiative. It will help you understand how best to apply for outside funds. The Building Your Partnership's Capacity for Change guide provides tools and ideas that build your capacity to identify, develop, and leverage existing resources. It will help you consider your partnership’s strengths and capacity needs, as well as identify what resources need to be developed and what can be better leveraged.

The Donor Fundraising Get-Started Toolkit can help your organization plan or expand its efforts to secure funds from individual and corporate donors. These funds are often unrestricted, which means they provide more flexibility in how they can be used. Unrestricted funds may be a good match for lobbying efforts. They also might fund your equity-related activities, including reaching out to underrepresented communities and hiring community organizers from the communities that are most impacted by the health improvement effort being implemented.

Finally, to address your longer-term funding needs, Community Tool Box provides an outline for Sustaining the Work or Initiative.

Activity 4 of 10

Identify Allies and Opponents

Once you’ve identified a particular policy change initiative, you’ll want to consider who can help you achieve your policy change goal. Your efforts will be more effective if they include people from multiple sectors and people experiencing inequities.

The Center for Creative Leadership’s Stakeholder Mapping tool will help you identify the internal and external stakeholders involved in your focus area, understand their interests and concerns, and create strategies to earn their support.

It is important to continuously evaluate the makeup of your coalition and its leadership team. Consider:

  • Do you need to add to your mix of partners to be sure your policy or program moves forward? For example, you may need to identify and recruit allies who have relationships with key decision makers that you don’t know yet or allies who have credibility with audiences you cannot reach as effectively.
  • Are you missing the support of key sectors, like the business community or neighborhood organizations? Are there sectors or groups that might be impacted by your work or that could support your effort, like city planners, community development organizers, or housing advocates?
  • Have you created supports for residents and those most affected by the issue to provide ongoing input as your policy or program moves forward? 
  • Are other groups of people already working on your issue? They may be approaching it from a different angle or perspective but they are still allies.
  • How can you build on what already exists? Neighborhood associations, PTAs, church groups, and other coalitions or organizations may be important allies to engage.

If you think your coalition needs to grow or broaden, there are many helpful tools and ideas within the Work Together step. In particular, the Coalition Mapping Worksheet can help identify potential allies and organizations interested in your policy or program. The Integrating Volunteers into a Campaign Plan tool will help you think about how to effectively involve volunteers in all aspects of your campaign and keep them engaged. Be intentional about including residents and community members who are most affected by the policy or program by finding out how they get and share information (i.e. faith-based organizations, word-of-mouth, informal leaders).

The ”Recognize Who Makes Up Your Community” section of the Partnering with Residents Action Learning Guide also offers some ideas to help you get started in thinking more broadly about who makes up your community.

For those potential allies with whom you do not have a pre-existing relationship, internet and social research is an important step to help you learn more about them. Taking time to do social research can help you move an undecided stakeholder to become an ally and/or find the leverage points for strengthening a relationship, especially with a stakeholder who has more power.

It is also critical to understand who your opponents are and why. Identifying Opponents, from Community Tool Box, will help you understand who may “lose” or think they’ll lose if your strategy is implemented, what they will do or spend to oppose you, and what power they have over key decision-makers. While internet and social research can help you learn more about your opposition, use your network and talk to other allies, particularly other advocates, decision makers, and strategists who have already worked with your opponents and will be able to advise you. Tread carefully. Groups sometimes rush to bring in opponents, hoping that they will come to a mutual understanding early. While that is possible, research early on and solid strategic advice will prevent your opponents from getting a leg up.

Activity 5 of 10

Understand Key Decision-Makers

Identifying the key decision-makers on your issue will help ensure you are directing your efforts toward those with the most influence. It is a prerequisite to developing your public outreach and education efforts.

While all members of whatever decision-making body will consider your proposal are important, certain members will be more critical for various reasons. It’s important to understand who these members are from the outset of your campaign. Begin by asking which organizations or individuals have the power to give you what you want? Who do you want to influence? The Nine Questions: A Strategy Planning Tool for Advocacy Campaigns provides guidance on what else to consider.

Key decision-makers may hold a particular position (e.g., chair of the decision-making body) or represent a district in which your issue is particularly relevant. As you determine which decision-makers to direct your efforts toward, consider your chances of gaining their support as well as their level of influence within the decision-making body.

Identifying decision-makers is just the first step. Understanding them is next. The Decision-Maker Analysis helps you think through the questions you’ll need to answer to understand who the key decision-makers are and how best to influence them. The Sphere of Influence tool may help you determine who you should be reaching to engage and build support, and which people or groups of people will give you the biggest impact for the least amount of effort.

Before visiting decision-makers you will want to be prepared. How can you learn about a decision-maker’s views? Internet research is a good place to start. If the decision-makers are policymakers, find out which committees they serve on, what’s important to them, and what their voting record has been. Often you will find they have published opinions about your issue. Again, the Decision-Maker Analysis provides a number of questions to prompt this type of research as well as ideas for where to find helpful information.

Also, consider who knows the decision-makers well and talk with them to find out more about each person’s interests and concerns. The Sphere of Influence can help you map relationships to understand who else may influence key decision-makers. Social research can help you understand decision-makers as people, including learning about their families, hobbies, volunteer work, or personal causes. It can give you a deeper understanding of the values, interests, and motivates the decision-maker(s) before you approach them. This can help you frame your message to persuade them to support your policy or program. For more information about building decision-maker and community support, please see Community Organizing: People Power from the Grassroots, which offers a short introduction to the principles, rules, and strategies for community organizing. 

Don’t expect that everyone will come along – not everyone will join your effort. In fact, many people will say no and that’s okay. Be prepared to listen actively and take careful notes about the aspects of the policy or program they do not support. The details of your policy or program may have to change and so try not to hear “no” as a final answer. It may be important to ask if the policymakers would be open to you circling back to them at a later date. Most will agree to a follow-up conversation, which provides another appointment to try again and buys you some time to further bolster your case. Generally, you will want to stay focused on those who are supportive. Once you have a pool of supportive decision-makers you will want to politically assess which one(s) you want as your champion(s). Be strategic. Pick someone who will prioritize your policy or program and work hard for it.

Activity 6 of 10

Build Public & Political Will

Decision-makers find the political will to act when they feel the public’s demand for action. Your job is to make them feel that demand. Many good ideas remain just that because those with the power to act lack the political will to do so. Before you can expect decision-makers to use their authority to pass the policy you seek or fund the program you propose, you first need to build support for your position among their constituents. This is building public will.

Building public will – increasing the public’s demand for the outcome you seek – is necessary to create the political will you’ll need to succeed. Public and political will are both important and are usually worked on simultaneously. Both have the power to affect public opinion and shape the resulting programs and policies. Public will campaigns often focus attention on a specific issue and set the agenda for how to address it. The audience ranges from community residents, to community leaders, to political leaders. Once public will is built, it can influence political will, which is demonstrated by policymaker support for change and often results in policy change. Sometimes it works the other way around – you have the support of decision-makers but they want to see more public support. Decision-makers are at risk if they are too far ahead of their constituents.

The work you did to identify key decision-makers in the previous Key Activity can help you tailor your outreach and education efforts. Some campaigns will require a broad public education approach using a combination of paid and earned media, while others will be more suited for deeper community organizing efforts aimed at energizing specific constituencies.

There is a wide range of tactics for informing and energizing the public about your issue. These include editorial board visits, letters to the editor, press conferences, speakers bureaus, utilizing established newsletters and blogs (of unions, civic organizations, faith communities), leafleting, door-to-door canvassing, social media, and paid media (including neighborhood, ethnic-specific, alternative, and online newspapers).

Effective communication strategies include community forums and public presentations to community groups. Consider reaching out to faith-based groups and churches, neighborhood organizations, nonprofits, parent teacher associations, housing advocates, small business leaders, community health clinics, local clubs or service groups (e.g., Kiwanis or Lions clubs), and other formal or informal groups from whom you want support. When reaching out to community groups, it’s often more effective to go to them rather than asking them to come to you.

Your goal here is to persuade people to take action, not just to educate and raise awareness. Make your presentations powerful. Stories are a powerful way to share information. More information on storytelling is detailed in the Use the Power of Story Key Activity in the Communicate step

You may also engage in community organizing to mobilize people to action. You can learn more about these in the Organize and Mobilize the Community Key Activity.

Activity 7 of 10

Organize and Mobilize the Community

Community organizing covers a broad list of activities from education to advocacy to direct action organizing, which includes engaging those most affected by the proposed changes. The foundation of community organizing is relationship building. 

Community Organizing: People Power from the Grassroots offers a short introduction to the principles, rules, and strategies for community organizing. Ideally, the entire campaign would be organized around the community organizing effort to ensure that it starts, and remains, based in the community.

One key component of community organizing is ensuring that information is flowing consistently between the core team and the broader community. The best people to do this are those from the same community. Ideally, their work should be compensated. Too often, communities, and particularly communities of color, are asked to execute key activities for free. Plan to equitably compensate those who carry out the critical elements of your campaign.

Rob English with Baltimoreans United in Leadership Development (BUILD) shares some key ideas and activities to successfully activate your community in this story about BUILD's efforts to organize the community to renovate Baltimore schools.

Lead with people, not solutions. This goes back to relationship building. Here are some ways you can do that:

  • Find out what is important to people. What do they care about? What is their interest in your issue? 
  • Talk to people and with people, not at people.
  • Meet people where they are. Go to neighborhood meetings. Door knocking is also a very effective way to recruit people to your campaign efforts.
  • Build your power base through meetings with community members and leaders who live in the areas you are trying to impact. Be sure to collect their contact information (i.e., email addresses, voting addresses, phone numbers, affiliation/title, etc.) so you can keep them informed of and engaged in your efforts. 

Engage people in action. Help them see and imagine what is and what could be. Are you working on better nutrition in schools? Ask the school board to eat a school lunch. Is transportation an issue in your community? Invite elected officials to take the city bus with you. In Baltimore, BUILD was looking for funding for school improvements and invited city council members to experience the challenging classroom conditions that Baltimore City students and teachers faced. 

If you think that your coalition needs to more fully engage with local residents in a way that shares leadership and distributes decision-making power, the Partnering with Residents Action Learning Guide will allow you to learn and reflect while you think about how to get started with community engagement.

To read more about community organizing, see also Recruit Diverse Stakeholders From Multiple Sectors in the Work Together step. 

Activity 8 of 10

Develop Your Persuasive Message

Whether the decision-makers you need to persuade are school board members, city councilors, county commissioners, or even business owners, try to understand their concerns and reframe your message in a way that respects their perspective.

Many decision-makers are responsible for serving people within the community. Use data and stories to show them how your issue will help the people they serve.  If you’ve never communicated with elected officials, it can be difficult to know where to start. Here are some tools that can help you navigate this crucial step: 

In addition to delivering your message to decision-makers directly, you can use media advocacy to reach them and to encourage their constituents to do the same. The Build Public & Political Will Key Activity talks about developing a communications plan for educating members of the community in general, and ultimately decision-makers, about your issue. Media advocacy takes your communication with these two groups to a different level. You’ve educated them, and now you’re asking them to take action. You’re asking decision-makers to vote your way, and you’re asking their constituents to amplify your request that they do so. The first step in this is to be clear about the lobbying rules as they apply to your organization – see the Deliver Your Message Key Activity for guidance on this. Once you understand the boundaries for your advocacy work, it’s time to move forward.

Message development is a critical first step in formulating your media advocacy strategy. Determine your main message and test it if possible. You will want to connect your messages to your audience. For more on message development see Meta Messaging: Framing Your Case and Reinforcing Your Allies. Once you develop your main messages, you will want to write your content and develop materials such as fact sheets, frequently asked questions (FAQ), social media content, and talking points for coalition spokespersons.

Activity 9 of 10

Deliver Your Message

Once you have built public support for your position, identified your key decision-makers, and developed your message, it‘s time to deliver that message to those with the power to give you what you want. Policy advocacy at this level can be intimidating, but the ability to influence and persuade decision-makers is a critical part of being successful health champions.

One reason advocacy can seem intimidating is that it may include lobbying. Lobbying can be either direct or indirect. Direct lobbying happens when the proponents of a specific legislative proposal ask decision-makers for their support. Indirect, or grassroots lobbying, occurs when the proponents of a specific legislative proposal ask members of the public to communicate with their representatives about supporting the proposal.

Some organizations and funding sources restrict lobbying activity. Nonprofits may be permitted to do a limited amount of lobbying, but check with your particular nonprofit or funder to learn about the situations where it may or may not be allowed. If you lead a nonprofit organization and would like to learn more, the Alliance for Justice from Bolder Advocacy provides resources, tools, and guidance on advocacy and lobbying, including Worry Free Lobbying for Nonprofits Handbook and The Connection. Influencing Public Policy in the Digital Age is a publication created to address the many questions organizations have about advocacy and lobbying digital communication and includes guidelines for public employee communications.

Connecting with the media can seem daunting—especially if you haven’t worked with the media before. Your media advocacy plan will likely include developing a key message(s), an elevator pitch, and submitting letters to the editor or opinion-editorial (op-ed) columns. Most campaigns use a combination of earned media and paid media.

Earned media – the coverage your campaign receives as a result or your proactive efforts to draw attention to it – is free. It is a critical tool for communicating to the public in all campaigns. You can generate media attention by issuing press releases, holding press conferences, meeting with editorial boards, submitting letters to the editor or opinion-editorial (op-ed) columns, and developing relationships with reporters.

Paid media directly promotes the merits of your position to readers, viewers, or listeners, just as businesses promote their products. It can be expensive, but necessary, for some types of large scale campaigns. TV, radio, and social media paid advertising are common for large scale controversial policy proposals such as efforts to raise the minimum wage. Some paid media in alternative or community newspapers, for example, can be relatively inexpensive while reaching a more narrowly focused audience.

Use media advocacy to move beyond education and knowledge-building to engaging and inspiring action. Spitfire Strategies’ Activation Point reminds us that to see change, we need to move people from knowledge to action. They refer to this as an activation point, which “occurs when the right people at the right time are persuaded to take an action that leads to measurable changes for important social issues.”

Here are a few tips from Activation Point about persuasive messaging (pages 51 and 52 provide a guide to getting started):

  • Avoid overwhelming people with too much information or dramatic statistics. This may cause people to feel paralyzed and powerless, making them less likely to act. Use pictures and images and limit words.
  • Present relevant facts and use citations. Present information in a way that shows people you believe they are capable of making a good decision – don’t force your decision or conclusion on them.
  • Give people hope that change is possible and that they can be part of it. Alarmist language that makes the issue seem too big for people to make a difference will turn people off.
  • Make people care about your issue by framing your message so it matches their values, not yours. Go back to the internet and social research you did to find out what your audience values, cares about, and prioritizes. Why is your issue of relevance and concern to your audience?
  • Evoke emotion – facts are part of the picture, but what do you want people to feel based on your communication? Remember that emotions can engage and offend, so be thoughtful about what emotions you evoke.
  • Treat people like people – be personal, be respectful, learn about them, understand them, embrace their energy and ideas, and help them fit into your efforts in a way that works for them and you. Be sensitive to comfort zones and lifestyles.

You can learn more about media advocacy and using social media in Use Media and Social Media in the Communicate step.

Activity 10 of 10

Sustain the Work

Keep in mind, policy change is only effective if the changes made are properly implemented. Think about sustaining the gain and making sure that your policy change efforts are put into place.

Depending on the issue, administrative rulemaking may be required, or enforcement protocols may have to be developed. Keep in mind that the decision-makers you influenced to pass a policy are often not the ones that will make sure that the policy is implemented. Strengthen your relationships with those who will be responsible for implementing the policy and offer support. In some cases, veto or repeal efforts will have to be confronted, as well. 

To assure that your changes are sustained, develop a long-term accountability plan that addresses policies, partnerships, organizational strategies, communication plans, and funding. When a policy is passed following a vigorous campaign that educated and engaged the public, the policy is more likely to be well-implemented and enforced.

As you move forward in long-term planning, consider whether putting a separate infrastructure in place with skilled staff and resources that will stay solely focused on maintaining and improving the policy or program is necessary or beneficial to your initiative. Your decisions about staffing and infrastructure will influence your ongoing funding needs. If the partnership exists for one very specific goal, and that goal is achieved, they no longer need to continue. Don’t be afraid to call it quits when your partnership has finished its work.