Basics of organising #1 – Researching the issues

Researching the issuesThere are basic tools and principles to community organising, but they are not templates. They must be evaluated and adapted to meet the needs of your local situation. The success of your organising drive will not depend upon this article – only your hard work and dedication to organising will make changes happen.


Researching the issues: Door-knocking

We go out into the community knocking on doors to find out what the community is thinking and feeling. What do people feel or think about the community? What do they want to see changed? Improved? Most organisations have found that door-knocking is the best technique to obtain that input.

When you are door-knocking, you are basically either ‘fishing’ or ‘pushing’, or some combination of the two. When door-knocking you have about 30 seconds to identify yourself, state your purpose and convince the person behind the door that you are not a debt collector, selling bibles or casing their home for a break-in. Recognising this, you must immediately identify yourself and try to mention some organisation which the people will know.

“Hello, I’m _____ and I work with the [local community action/campaign group etc.]. We are talking with people in the area to get their ideas on how the community can be improved.”


Fishing — This is when you are attempting to find an issue. After the introduction, you might say something like:

“If you could change one thing in the community, what would it be?”

“What do you think should be done to improve the community?”

If this gets no specific response, you might suggest something you have seen in the area.

“I noticed the house on the corner is boarded up, do you know who owns it?”

This should shift the discussion to a specific and what might be done about it. When fishing, you will usually get general responses such as:

“The neighbourhood is run down.”

“The neighbourhood is so dirty.”

“The neighbourhood isn’t like it used to be.”

Your job is to make these general responses into something specific by asking questions:

“What do you mean by dirty?”

“Can you point to one specific spot that is particularly dirty?”

Once you get a specific issue, then you ask:

“Would you be willing to come to a meeting about the empty house on the corner?”

Depending upon how strongly you think the person feels about the issue, you may even ask if the meeting could be held in his or her home next Tuesday (depending on space and the numbers expected). If the person agrees to hold the meeting, then you will probably stop fishing and start pushing when you move to the next door.


Pushing — This differs from fishing in that not only do you have an issue already, you have a date, time, and place for the meeting. After the introduction:

“A lot of the neighbours are complaining about the empty house on the comer. We are getting together next Tuesday at 7:30 above the pub on the corner. This is a good time to get something done about the house once and for all. Will you be able to come?”

If there is interest, repeat the date, time and place, give a flyer and ask if there is anyone else they can talk with about the meeting. If there seems little interest:

“Well, there will be time to discuss other issues. What would you like to see something done something about?”

The trick is to get people out and discussing their concerns with other neighbours.



• You may want to ask for a phone number. This depends on how comfortable the person feels with you. It can be a threat to some people.

• If you take notes in front of people, tell them what you are doing so they do not think you are taking notes about the make of their TV. “I’m making a note that you brought up the problem with the rats so I don’t forget it.”

A good method is to carry little cards in your pocket, and as you are walking to the next house merely write down the address and the issue.

No. 43 – rats

No. 44 – hates the organisation

No. 45 – promised info on an underhand councillor

When you get back home, you can see what follow-up you must do. Also, the next time you go to the area you can take your cards so you have a point of reference to begin talking with people.

• If you promise information to people, make sure you get it to them.

• If you are asked a question for which you don’t know the answer, don’t be afraid to admit you don’t know. Honesty is better than making a fool of yourself.

• If you are met with hostility, don’t get into an argument. You won’t win anyway, and you will merely turn the person off to your organisation. Simply offer thanks for the time and move on.

• Dress in an acceptable way for the community.

• Do not wear badges other than an organisation button; the person behind the door may not support your particular concern.

• Remember, you are an intrusion into the life of the person behind the door.


Researching the issues: Questionnaires

A less intrusive method of finding out people’s concerns (albeit one with a lower response rate) is a questionnaire. This can be posted door to door around a neighbourhood and could ask questions like:

“What issues affect you and your family?”

“What would make your neighbourhood a better place to live in?”

“If you could change one thing about your city, what would it be and why?”

Also ask for a name and address or some other form of contact. Without the pressure of a stranger on the doorstep, the resident may give a more honest and detailed answer. These can then be posted back to your organisation or an arrangement could be made with the local shop or pub to have them dropped into there and collected regularly by you.


This text was originally published by National Training and Information Centre, USA 1985 and written by Shel Trapp. Large sections have been edited or otherwise omitted.

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