Understanding your constituency

What is in this guide?

  1. Why is it important to understand your organisation's constituency
  2. Key things you should know about your constituency
  3. How to collect information about your constituency

  1. Why is it important to understand your organisation's constituency?

Organisations and leaders that are successful are those that understand the people they work with. Every organisation has a constituency - that is the target group that you are trying to mobilise, organise, influence or recruit. You can only be effective as an organiser if you go to the people you want to organise, learn from them, understand their conditions and work for change at a pace that they can accept.

You probably think that you know your constituency well and have many opinions about what people see as their problems and what their attitudes are. Remember that activists often see the world differently from ordinary people. It is very important that you do research to really find out what people see as their problems, how they see solutions and what their attitudes are to change.

There are many cases where organisations fail to reach and mobilise their chosen constituency. For example there are lots of progressive youth organisations and yet the youth are said to be politically apathetic. It may be that youth organisations still work in the same ways that they did in the apartheid era, but the youth of today may no longer be interested in politics in the same way as they were in the past.

Constituencies constantly undergo change. By collecting information on the conditions and changes and analysing them, organisations can plan better to make a positive impact.
All organisations have a goal. It is like travelling on a long road to arrive at a destination (goal). If your organisation wants to get there quickly with minimum problems you have to plan. Planning requires us to find out information about the route that we are taking. We need to know where potholes exist, where there are dangerous bends and curves and where the road is safe. Understanding your constituency and the environment in which you work are the first steps in good planning. [see guide on planning]

  1. Key things you should know about your constituency

Different organisations need to know different things. Here is a broad list of the types of things you may want to know. It is divided into three categories:

  • The people you are targeting
  • What exists in the area where they live - the physical environment
  • Community life - what else is happening in the community

The people you are targeting:

  • Their practical needs and problems
  • Issues that worry or concerns them
  • Their hopes for the future
  • Their attitudes towards, and opinions about, the issues you focus on
  • The spread of age groups, gender, employment status
  • What they do with their free time - membership of organisations, clubs, religion

What exists in the area where they live - the physical environment

  • Types of housing, basic services like water, sanitation and electricity
  • Schools
  • Roads
  • Essential services : hospitals, clinics, ambulance, firefighting and police services
  • Postal and Telecommunication
  • Sport, parks and other recreational facilities
  • Government Offices - Welfare, Revenue Services, Home Affairs
  • Local Council facilities (paypoints and service centres)
  • Shops, Markets and Banking Facilities
  • Factories
  • Places of Worship
  • Community Halls
  • Access to transport

Community Life - What else is happening in the Community

  • Political Organisations
  • School Governing Bodies
  • Community Policing Forum
  • Local Development Forums
  • Trade Unions
  • Civic Organisations
  • Religious organisations
  • Youth, Women, Business, burial societies, stokvels and other organisations
  • The Local Councillor/s and Ward Committees
  • MP or MPL
  • Traditional leaders
  • Sport and cultural clubs
  • Gangs, crime, taxi rivalries and loansharks
  1. How to collect information about your constituency

Now that we have an understanding of what information you need as a leader to understand your constituency, we will look at how you go about getting this information. You can get information from official sources, through community meetings, by doing interviews to draw up a sector profile or through focus groups. This section contains more details about each of these methods.

Official Sources

  • Schools and Crèches can provide enrolment figures as well as gender breakdowns
  • Hospitals and clinics can provide details of admissions and details of the major health problems facing the community
  • The local Police Station can provide crime statistics
  • The Local Council can provide details on:
    • Registered voters from the voters roll
    • Plans to develop the area
    • Payment levels for services
    • Backlogs in the provision of services
  • If the council has completed its Integrated Development Plan it may be able to provide fairly accurate details on population size, employment status and plans to develop the area.
  • You can visit the website of the Municipal Demarcation Board. There is a breakdown of information from the last population census for each Local Council Area.
  • Check with both non-governmental and government agencies for any studies conducted in the community you work in.
  • You may find the Needs Assessment tool in our Guide on Gender and Development useful in organising the information you have collected.

Community Meetings

Community meetings can be convened to hear the views of people on a particular issue. For example, a meeting of the community could be called to discuss the proposed closure of a school. The meeting can hear the views of the community and work out plans to resolve the issue.

Sector Profiles

Your organisation may want to collect information on the problems and attitudes of a sector (youth, women, elderly) of the community. This information is very useful when planning campaigns targeting these sectors. They are especially useful when conducting campaigns aimed at changing peoples' behaviour. Sector profiles are usually conducted by choosing a sample (a percentage of the total targeted sector) in an area. Interviews are conducted on an individual basis with each interviewee.

All interviewers will have to be trained and briefed. See Guide on Campaigns for more details on doing community opinion research.

Here is an example of a form that can be used to interview students at tertiary institutions:


1. GENDER: M ____F_____ RACE: ____________ (for demographic purposes)

2. AGE: _________________________

3. COURSE CURRENTLY STUDYING: __________________________

4. YEAR OF STUDY: ____________

5. Are you staying on/off campus? ________

6. How do travel to campus? (Tick appropriate option/s)

BusTrainTaxiLift ClubOwn CarOther, Specify

7. Do you receive a bursary? _________

8. If yes, what does it pay for? (Tick appropriate option/s)

TuitionResidenceCourse material TransportOther, Specify

9. If no, who is paying your fees? _____________________________

10. Do you have a part time job? ______________________________

11. If no, is it out of your own choice? ________________________________________


1. What do you do between lectures? (Tick appropriate option/s)

Sit in the cafeteria 
Play sport 
Participate in the activities of student organisations, clubs and societies 
Spend time with your partner 

2. Do you participate in the activities of any student organisation club or society? _____________

3. If yes which organisation, club or society?___________________________

4. If not, why not? (Tick appropriate column)

I have no time 
Organisation, clubs or society does not cater for my interests or needs 
Just not interested 
They don't exist on this campus 

5. What would you like to see these organisations, clubs and societies doing for students?


6. Did you vote in the last SRC election? Yes__________No____________

7.If not, Why not? ___________________________________________________________


8. List the 3 biggest problems confronting students on campus?

1: ________________________________________________________

2: ________________________________________________________

3: ________________________________________________________

9. Do you think that the SRC is doing enough to address these problems?



1. What are your five greatest concerns facing young people in South Africa?

a. _______________________________________________

b. _______________________________________________

c. _______________________________________________

d. _______________________________________________

e. _______________________________________________

2. Do you think that government is doing to enough to address these concerns?

3. What can we do as students to address these concerns?

4. How do you feel about the following statements? (Tick appropriate box)

I feel happy mixing with people of all races   
I only socialise with people that are my own race   
I feel discriminated against because of my race   
I will vote in an election   
I'm positive about the future of South Africa   
I will probably emigrate/ leave South Africa one day   
South Africa has a lot to offer young people   
Students have a responsibility to get involved in compulsory community service for a short period after completing their studies   


1. Is enough being done to educate students about HIV and AIDS?

Yes__ No ___

2. Do you think that students: (Tick appropriate box)

 YesNoNot Sure
Are faithful to one partner   
Condomise and practise safe sex   
Take the threat of HIV and AIDS seriously   
Understand how HIV and AIDS is contracted   

3. Is violence and rape serious problems facing women students? _____________________________________________________


Focus Groups

After completing a sector profile, your organisation may want to get more information as to why people have certain views, attitudes of beliefs.

For example:

In the sample, Sector Profile Form we asked students if they felt discriminated against because of their race. After collecting and analysing the forms, we may find that over 90% of African women students felt discriminated against because of their race. To find more information as to why these women feel this way we may convene a group meeting of about ten of these women. Your organisation needs to work out a way of recruiting willing participants. The best way may be through direct contact. This group will be focused on specific discussion topic, i.e. "Perceptions of Discrimination amongst African Women Students".

The meeting should be chaired by a skilled facilitator whose key responsibility is to ask questions that keep the group focussed on the topic. The facilitator should not take sides or give opinions, but remain as neutral as possible. His/her role is to make everyone feel comfortable so that they can talk honestly about the topic.

Careful planning needs to take place before the meeting of the group. We may decide to select a women facilitator to make the environment less threatening. The facilitator must create an environment where group members will respond to her questions as well as be prepared to engage other participants.

Unlike the Sector Profile, where the questions asked required direct responses (yes or no), responses in a focus group will take the form of discussion with lost of detail.


Why do you feel discriminated against?

What can be done to deal with the problem?

What can we do to involve more women students in dealing with this problem?

The facilitator may ask further questions to get responses that are more detailed. The facilitator will also have the opportunity to examine how people reactions through facial expressions and non-verbal signs.

The meetings of the group should be recorded, so that your organisation and the facilitator can reflect on and analyse the discussions. Your organisation will have to look for the common themes emerging from the discussions and work out what can be done to address the problem.

Once your organisation has worked out a programme to deal with the problem, invite the group participants back to discuss your programme. Get feedback on whether the programme can work and whether women students are prepared to get involved in addressing this problem.

Your organisation may also use the results of a focus group to directly engage people with power. For example, you may want to target the administration of the University to make changes to policies that discriminate against women.