Building and Working with Coalitions
Working in a coalition can be a great way to pool limited resources, compare effective strategies, and target new audiences and potential members for your own organization. However, there are important factors to consider before attempting to branch out to new groups.
- Win what couldn't be won alone.
- Build an ongoing power base.
- Increase the impact of individual organizations' efforts.
- Develop new leaders.
- Increase resources.
- Broaden scope.
- Membership recruiting opportunities.
- Distracts from other work.
- Weak members can't deliver.
- Too many compromises.
- Inequality of power.
- Individual organizations may not get credit.
- Dull tactics.
Principles for Successful Coalitions
Choose unifying issues.
There needs to be a common cause, not just a desire to work on one another's agendas. A shopping list of issues will result in chaos and few actual accomplishments.
Understand and respect institutional self-interest.
Recognize that each organization brings its own history, structure, agenda, values, culture, leadership and relationships to a coalition. Avoid unnecessary conflicts.
Agree to disagree.
Member organizations seldom agree on all issues. Agree to avoid issues on which you do not agree.
Play to the center with tactics.
It is usually necessary to play to the groups that are toward the middle when developing tactics for a coalition. However, the coalition's strategy may be to encourage the appropriate organizations to act independently and in their own names, utilizing more militant tactics.
Recognize that contributions vary.
Organizations bring different strengths and weaknesses to the coalition.
Help organizations to achieve their self-interest.
Organizations need to feel that they are benefiting from the coalition, either through attaining a goal, increasing their visibility or expanding their base.
Achieve significant victories.
Groups will only continue contributing if they see concrete, measurable results.
Urge stable, senior board representatives.
Encourage member organizations to be represented by individuals who have the authority to make decisions regarding the participation of their organization.
Clarify the decision-making procedure.
Whatever the structure, it should be clear to all board members.
Distribute credit fairly.
Don't underestimate how important this is to members of coalitions. An organization's ability to raise money, recruit members, build power, attract staff, develop leaders and fulfill its mission depends directly on the amount of public credit it receives, particularly in the press. Organizational self-interest is legitimate. Groups join coalitions to gain power, not to give it away.
Tips to Keep in Mind
In the past, international affairs issues have not received enough domestic political support to prevent them being programs cut when federal budgets are tight. It is simply more difficult to rally people around issues that seemingly do not affect their daily lives. However, in today's globalized world, events abroad do increasingly affect the everyday lives of Americans, and the key is to make this point repeatedly and in a way that seems realistic to the "average American."
Reach out to groups that may not seem immediately to have an interest in the United Nations or other international issues. A great example is your local Chamber of Commerce, to whom you can stress that the UN helps provide the "soft infrastructure" that makes American business more successful abroad. These types of partnerships not only increase the base of your coalition, but they provide new audiences and new vehicles for communicating your central message.
Concentrate your efforts on groups that really have something to offer and that are not engaged in activities that may be counterproductive to your own efforts.
Don't spend disproportionate amounts of time attempting to recruit new members.
The Organizer's Job
There is a difference between organizing an individual membership organization and a coalition. With a coalition, you are not creating an entity in which anyone who so desires may participate. You are carefully assembling the appropriate groups, in the appropriate order, to ensure that all who should be in are invited, seemingly simultaneously. This must be done carefully, and it requires a skilled organizer who can juggle a number of things at once. You must talk to all the key players at about the same time to avoid anyone feeling as if they are the last to be consulted or invited.
You should function in several roles:
Consider these questions when setting up your coalition:
- Work with the leaders who are sent from the member organizations and help them participate fully.
- Minimize tensions among coalition members by helping them work together.
- Build the coalition - illustrating how participation within the coalition will build the organizations or participants.
- The program of the coalition should be carried out by and through the affiliates. You should disseminate information and ideas to affiliates and help them to mobilize their own members to support/oppose an issue.
There is one cardinal rule of coalition building - never become involved in the internal politics of any coalition member organizations.
- What competing organizational self-interests may exist between members?
- Which organizations will contribute the most and which have the most to gain by participating?
Building a coalition and making it work effectively requires tough analytical strategic thinking, clear understanding about how coalitions work, savvy staff, and hard work.
Expanding Your Coalition
The success of your efforts to expand your coalition depends in large part upon your ability to recruit volunteers to assist you. The keys to volunteer recruitment are:
- Reaching out to coalition partners.
- Being prepared with a task for willing volunteers.
- Recognizing that there is no such thing as a "free" volunteer.
- Volunteer appreciation.
Reaching out to coalition partners: Local affiliates of your partner organizations can yield a wealth of volunteers. A meeting of the leadership of local affiliates should be scheduled as soon as possible to create a working group to plan and implement activities. Each local affiliate should be asked to provide staff/members to help organize activities when needed.
Many of the local affiliates hold regular meetings of membership/activists. Ask to attend those meetings to discuss the need for action and to recruit volunteers. Also reach out to organizations which are not partners but are likely to sympathize with your efforts. Possibilities are minority organizations, women's organizations, seniors' organizations, and environmental groups.
College campuses are a great source for volunteers and organizing activities. College students tend to have more time to spare in the evenings and weekends and are often more comfortable than others in taking a very visible role in an event.
Seek out sympathetic groups on campus and ask to address a scheduled meeting or work through the representatives of the group. Since transportation can often be a problem for college students, try to hold planning meetings near or on campus and help arrange transportation to an event/rally/demonstration, etc. It is always your job, to the best of your ability, to ensure the safety of students. Remember they may lack the maturity and experience of other volunteers.