Cultivating Health Champions

In global health we hear the word champion often. Champions can open minds and doors for innovation. They mobilize communities and advocate for change. They can reduce stigmas by providing accurate information and putting faces to silent struggles and years of discrimination. Global health champions helped eradicate smallpox and have given voice and legitimacy to HIV/aids in communities across the world. Champions can be survivors with their own stories to tell, empathetic allies and opinion or community leaders, or even relatable fictional characters. A Cohrene study (2007 as cited in NCCMT, 2011) suggests that using champions is effective approach to promoting change.

According to The National Collaborating Center for Methods and Tools or NCCMT  (2011), “A champion is a charismatic advocate of a belief, practice, program, policy and/or technology.”

So how does one go about cultivating champions?

My answer is that there is not a single right answer. It depends on where you are, what you want to do and whose involved. Like anything you have to match the answer to the question. Do some formative research and decipher who is your audience and who and what influence and move them (see some of our previous blog posts about social marketing). Programs around the world depend on various types of champions: some engage communities and local people, some engage survivors and those with personal stories and struggles  and some engage or create opinion leaders both real and fictional. In  some situations champions can emerge on there own without being involved in a formal program or policy.  

For example the dark, humorous but incredibly insightful blog author “Allie’ of Hyperbole and a Half posted “Depression part 2” explaining her experience with depression and strangely enough a piece of corn under her fridge. This single blog post  began conversations about mental and depression by simply telling a story and explaining what it was like in a creating and captivating way.  It has 5000 comments from the day it was posted,  and is referenced by  numerous blogs and popular websites including jezebel and reddit.  If you need more proof simple google ” depression corn under the fridge”

For those of you who want a more theoretical or evidence based approach you can look into the “champion advocacy model” as outlined by NCCMT. This model looks at the likelihood that a idea or practice is adopted by the population of interest (relates to the diffusion of innovation model). Using a project by Family Health International (FHI) called ‘Network of Champions’ of (NOC which is detailed here), NCCMT argues that aligning individuals whom are already perceived as opinion leaders is more effective in promoting change than less influential individuals who are already aligned with your cause. They also conclude that:

  • The influence of a single influence may be limited to a certain level or sphere. Therefore multiple champions should be engaged at multiple ‘points of influence’ to maximize their combined influence while avoiding bottlenecks.
  • Any new advocacy effort demands a significant buy in and support from a wide range of stakeholders.
  • Incentives and supports for champions can increase likelihood of success, including formal recognition and acknowledgement, technical and financial supports including transport stipends, capacity-building opportunities and skills certificates” (FHI, 2011)
  • It is essential that strategies to prevent or address champion fatigue are developed and implemented. 
  • Any external inter-country networking of a various number of champion based initiatives should be established and maintained on an individual bases. 

In addition to these lessons, FHI’s own report on NOC also recommends that you match your champion to the specific activity you want them to do being mindful of their position, influence, time frames and feasibility. You should also encourage champions to build local support networks and internalize the program’s vision to avoid micro managing them (FHI, 2011). 

Good luck!


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