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Help Sheet

Identifying agents of change - those you are trying to reach and those who can help

When doing work in your community, the first thing to decide is what is the issue or problem you want to address. Whether you're setting up a support group or an advocacy service, it's your group's reason for being; it's what you're all about.

But you and your organisation are not alone. There are people who can benefit from your work, and people who can help you: people for whom your initiative has things to offer, and people from whom you can learn and get assistance.

You need to be clear about who will benefit from what you are doing, and who else has expertise in that area. Knowing just who these people are is an important step.

This help sheet is designed to help you decide who your organisation or initiative is trying to reach and who are the people who can help you reach them. These people are sometimes called 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've found everyone who can benefit and everyone who can help, not just the most obvious candidates.

Who are the people who have the experience, or can help with the problem or the issue?

You're probably trying to change a certain outcome, such as creating decent jobs or providing specialist support. Sometimes, the particular issue you're involved with is clear; other times, the root cause of a given problem or issue is less obvious.

For example, it's often been noted that many people with psychiatric disabilities live in isolation. There can be many reasons for this, though, and it's not necessarily as a result of ill health. People are often exposed to discriminatory attitudes, even within those services that are supposed to be supporting them, and they often don't have the money to be involved in ordinary social activities.

If these kinds of structural problems affect the people we serve, it might lead our group toward activities best described as systemic advocacy - campaigning for better job opportunities, or working with employment services to overcome any misinformation or prejudice that may exist.

Similarly, understanding who will benefit from your work can be relatively simple or more difficult. Generally, the people who will benefit from your activities will fall into two categories:

  • Those people who directly experience the problem
  • Those people who contribute to the problem through their actions or inaction.

Deciding who is directly affected by the issue is usually the easy part. In the consumer world, the people who experience the problem aren't likely to be the ones you will target for change. It will be more likely that the people experiencing the problem are themselves the agents of change.

For example, if you're a consumer-run advocacy service, then consumers will be the ones served by your programs, but they aren't the targets of your efforts at change. Your targets might be conventional support services, health providers, and government services - those people whose actions (or inaction) contribute to the problem. Examples of these people might include:

  • service providers such as health, employment, housing services
  • teachers and schools
  • business people and merchants
  • elected and appointed officials.

As you work on an initiative, you'll want to consider both categories -targets, and agents of change. Sometimes, an initiative might be designed to work with both those people who experience the problem and those who contribute to it. For example, a community initiative to improve understanding of the impact of prejudice against people with psychiatric disabilities might use:

  • A media campaign designed by people who experience psychiatric disabilities speaking about the issues they face, to increase public awareness of the problem
  • A letter-writing campaign directed at public officials to influence resource allocations for improved opportunities for employment, housing and education.

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 in 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. In the previous example of an anti-discrimination campaign designed by people with psychiatric disabilities, the issues will be relevant precisely because they come from the group of people who have the 'lived experience' and are affected by the issue.

This idea of peer-led change cuts across many different social issues. For example, gang members may be in a position to contribute to reductions in gang-related violence; people who have experienced problems with drug and alcohol are often counselors in rehabilitation services; peers are in a position to influence academic achievement of other youth; people who have experienced trauma or loss are in a position to help others with similar experiences cope with the effects; and people with psychiatric disabilities are in a position to provide and gain mutual support from one another.

Remember that the success of efforts toward change are directly related to the effort put in to connecting with the people who are directly affected by the issue.

People experiencing the concern are usually 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.

What do these agents of change do?

In this section, we're looking at agents of change who can further the aims of your group or organisation.

Agents of change have to have a close understanding of the issues at stake. They'll need to be good at connecting with people and be clear about the purposes and activities of your group.

Agents of change can be useful in:

  • Assessing the environment - what are the political circumstances? Is the timing right? Where are we in the budget cycle? Is it a good time for action?
  • Identifying partnerships - who to collaborate with? Who has a similar interest?
  • Identifying useful allies
  • Strengthening your purpose
  • Communicating your messages further afield

How do you identify all of these 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 (this is just for your own use, but you might want to grab a piece of paper and scribble down your answers: the act of writing something often 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.

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 but think too about whose action (or inaction) is at the root of the problem. For example, people who discriminate against those with psychiatric disabilities in the employment sector; elected officials who don't hold such agencies accountable; well-meaning support organisations who nevertheless may have low expectations of what their service users are capable of; members of the general public who permit discrimination? Write down all of the answers that come up.
  • Does the problem affect a wider group of people?
    For example, if you're running an anti-discrimination program, it's useful to think about ways in which tackling discrimination is everyone's responsibility, as well as being an issue that can potentially affect anyone.
  • Who are the peers of those affected?
    If you're focusing on discrimination and youth, for example, you might include all young people in your action plan, and not just those who have already had experience with mental health problems.

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 empathise 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; ethnic groups) that might become involved?
  • Who does your group 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?

To sum it up

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're doing what you set out to do - and that you're doing this for everyone who can benefit and contribute.



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