The tapestry of advocacy efforts at the international, national, state, and local levels is replete with collaborative initiatives that bring together diverse interests to accomplish a common goal. As a nonprofit organization seeks to accomplish its mission, its leadership often finds the value of creating formal and informal partnerships among like-minded organizations. As in any endeavor, there are traps and pitfalls in creating and running a coalition.
While it is often said that “two heads are better than one,” it is equally rejoined that “too many cooks spoil the broth.” Both of these clichés are often equally valid when applied to a coalition, and it is important for an organizational leader to be able to assess which one applies predominantly before embarking on coalition-forming.
A coalition is a group of diverse organizations that join together to accomplish a specific objective that is likely to be achieved more quickly and effectively than if the organizations acted independently. There are many types of coalitions, and the structure is often dictated by political as well as financial considerations. The prototypical coalition involving state government issues starts with a convener coalition partner who has identified an issue, usually of direct importance to the convener’s organizational membership.
The convener then “rounds up the usual suspects” by soliciting membership in the coalition from constituencies that will participate in the coalition. He or she schedules periodic meetings of the coalition at which members share information about the issue and develop a strategy to accomplish a specific goal of the coalition that, as is often the case, is the passage of legislation to solve the problem. It is not unusual for the coalition to continue even after the legislation upon which it focused on is enacted into law.
• Formal organization. Some coalitions structure formally, creating a distinct nonprofit corporate structure, such as a 501(c)(3), which will permit the coalition to hire staff, seek tax-deductible contributions from the public, rent office space, and have a system of governance that parallels, in many respects, the constituent organizations that comprise the coalition. Obviously, one would not seek to create such a complex legal entity if the objective of the coalition was to be achieved in the short term. It is not atypical for a new 501(c)(3) coalition staff to spend much of its efforts raising funds to keep it in business rather than focusing on the actual mission of the coalition. Even if funding is stable, many formal coalitions spend an inordinate amount of time on intra-organizational issues, compared to achieving their stated purposes. An example of a formal coalition is Independent Sector (http://www.independentsector.org).
• Semi-formal coalition. These coalitions consist of organizations that have some financial resources themselves and are able to fund the activities of the coalition. While not incorporated as separate legal entities, these coalitions nevertheless may have office space and staff. The office space may be provided as an in-kind contribution from one of the coalition members, and the staff may or may not be employees of one of the member organizations. An example of such a coalition is the Public Education Coalition to Oppose Tuition Vouchers.
• Informal coalition. Most coalitions are informal, with a convener organizational leader, but with no dedicated organizational staff or budget, or separate bank account. The convener organization convenes the coalition, sends out meeting notices, holds the meeting in the convener’s office, and staffs the coalition as a part of its routine organizational duties. Costs can be shared among coalition members, and the convener duty can be rotated among members. In general, member organizations are not bound by the positions taken by the coalition. An example of such a coalition in Pennsylvania is the Charities Build Communities Coalition, sponsored by the Pennsylvania Association of Nonprofit Organizations (originally named the Nonprofit Advocacy Network).
• Group networks. A group network is a type of informal coalition that has been formed to serve an information-sharing function with less emphasis on coordinated action. These networks have no staff, no budget, take no positions, and are useful in raising the consciousness of participants about a particular issue or set of issues. These networks also are valuable in bringing people together to “network,” and to build trust among organizational leadership. While efforts to coordinate action on an issue are often the result of a network-based coalition, the network itself often does not take a formal role in the coordination; rather, the discussions among the participants during and after the meeting result in the synergistic effects of the network. Among examples of these coalitions in Pennsylvania have been coalitions formed to ban corporal punishment, increase welfare grants, support minimum wage increases, and expand the school breakfast program.
Coalitions focus attention among the media, opinion leaders, and those with advocacy resources on a specific issue. Any organization, no matter how large and powerful, has a limited ability to get its message across to the public, government officials, and the media. Building a coalition is an effective strategy to call attention to an issue, since messages not perceived to be important when heard from one organization may be considered important from another.
Coalitions bring together experts on a particular issue. A convener of a coalition often has a burning desire to solve a particular public-policy problem and has well-developed organizational skills, but may lack the technical expertise to develop the solution. Creating a coalition is a strategy to bring together experts in the field who collegially can participate in developing a solution.
Coalitions provide a forum to resolve turf issues and to limit destructive competition. Very few important public policy issues are so narrow that a single organization is the only one with a direct interest in their resolution. Virtually any public policy issue, particularly one that influences human services, affects a broad range of advocacy organizations, whether it impinges on children, schools, the environment, business, the disabled, or the aged. Trying to solve a problem without the “buying in” of key decision-makers is a recipe for disaster. Coalitions provide the framework for obtaining the cooperation of opinion makers who otherwise would be threatened by any effort to change public policy that violates their political turf.
Coalitions provide credibility to an issue and to the convener organization. One obvious application of this principle is the effort, often unsuccessful, of various extremist organizations not accepted in society, such as the KKK, to try to form or participate in coalitions that have a goal consistent with a community consensus. Another principle is that organizational messages viewed as self-interest are viewed negatively. When coalitions include organizations that are viewed to be acting in the public interest (such as those affiliated with the religious community or the League of Women Voters), it is more beneficial to have the organization’s message delivered by a coalition.
Coalitions permit resources to be shared. Coalitions benefit by the resources of their membership, including money, volunteers, staff, office equipment, and meeting space. It is more cost-effective for an organization to form a coalition to permit resources to be shared, rather than having to pay the entire bill itself.
Coalitions provide a path to inform new constituencies about an emerging issue. For example, the religious-based advocacy community’s constituency may not have access to detailed information about a specific state budget problem, other than seeing an occasional newspaper article. It is one thing for welfare recipients to write to their legislators requesting a grant increase, and another for middle-class taxpayers to write advocating for an increase based on economic justice, not self-interest. Coalitions provide a framework for expanding constituencies beyond those of the convener.
Coalitions result in positive public relations for a convener coalition-builder. New organizations build respect by forming and running a successful coalition. While the “credit” for a success achieved single-handedly can be savored, achieving that success is often much more difficult than with help from a coalition. By bringing other organizations together and working for a common goal, those organizations learn to work with the convener, to build trust, to get visibility for the new organization, and to make it more likely that the convening organization will be invited to participate in other coalitions.
It is often difficult for members of a coalition to focus on an issue that is usually not the priority issue for any member of the coalition other than the convener.
Coalition members who are not the convener often have an agenda that differs from that of the convener. They may seek to exploit the coalition for their own goals in a manner that may be inconsistent with the purpose for which the coalition was formed.
Coalitions usually reach agreement on issues by consensus, which is sometimes difficult to achieve. When it is achieved, the result is often the lowest common denominator and dilutes the aggressiveness that might have been necessary to solve a problem.
Coalitions require considerably more time to make decisions than would be required by the convener acting alone. Many coalition members require major decisions to be discussed by their own boards. There is a lag time between when a decision is requested and when a decision can be made by a coalition, compared with an individual organization. Even scheduling a coalition meeting to discuss when a coalition consensus can be developed can be extremely difficult at times.
Many important coalition partners have organizational difficulties that make them accustomed to working independently rather than in coalition.
Coalitions can require substantial organizational work, such as preparing agendas, mailing materials, and coordinating meeting times.
There are many questions that should be answered, and an honest assessment made, in determining whether forming a coalition to solve a problem is constructive. Among them are:
• What is the outcome I wish to achieve with this coalition? Is it realistic to achieve it by myself? Are the chances for success improved with a coalition?
• Whose turf am I treading on by trying to solve this issue alone? Is there a more appropriate organization to form this coalition?
• Are there constituencies in my own organization that will react negatively if I form this coalition?
• How much will a coalition cost me in terms of money, time, and focus?
• Who should be invited to participate; who should not be invited?
• Will I have better access to outside experts if I form a coalition?
• Will my prospective coalition participants get along?
• How will the coalition dissolve after my goals are achieved?
• What kind of commitment do I need from participants, and is it realistic to expect to receive these commitments?
• Make sure that there are no major irreconcilable differences between coalition participants, either as a result of ideology or personal enmities.
• Identify all organizations that have a direct or indirect interest in the issue.
• Invite, if appropriate, organizations that would enhance the credibility of the coalition.
• Make sure that the effort is not perceived to be partisan.
• Invite outside experts to either serve on the coalition or speak to it.
• Consider business, labor, education, religious advocacy, good government citizen groups, health, local government, state government, federal government, beneficiaries of success of the coalition’s objective, provider associations, lobbyists, experts on the issue, community leaders, foundation and other grantmaker representatives, charities, and religious leaders as coalition members.
Wisconsin Clearinghouse for Prevention Resources―Coalition Building
Community How To Guide on Coalition Building
National Coalition Building Institute
University of Kansas Coalition Building Community Toolbox
Institute for Sustainable Communities
Brown, Cherie R. (1984). The Art of Coalition Building―A Guide for Community Leaders. New York: American Jewish Committee.
Kahn, Si. (1991). Organizing: A Guide for Grassroots Leaders. Washington, DC: NASW Press.
Roberts, J. (2005). Alliances, coalitions and partnerships: Building collaborative organizations. British Columbia, CA: New Society Publishers.
Tydeman, Ann. (1979). A Guide to Coalition Building. Washington, DC: National Citizen’s Coalition for Nursing Home Reform.
Van Dyke, N. & McCammon, H. (2010). Strategic alliances: Coalition building and social movements. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Wolff, T. (1997). From the ground up! A workbook on coalition building & community development. Amhurst, MA: AHEC/Community Partners.