Building and Sustaining Effective Coalitions

June 28, 2024

Filed under: Advocacy,Leadership,Strategic Planning — jonathanpoisner @ 2:47 pm

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about effective coalitions, , since I’ve been hired to launch a couple in the last year and facilitated meetings of a third.  Actually, I’ve been thinking about this topic for 25 years as coalitions have been at the forefront of my professional career, both when I was working as a nonprofit Executive Director and as a consultant.

I was looking back at a PowerPoint I created several years ago about effective coalitions and realized I’d never taken the time to update it and present it in written form.

So here for your reading please is some of my top advice when it comes to how to build and sustain an effective coalition.  Since much of my career has involved nonprofits for whom advocacy on public policy is a major component, this article is heavily weighted towards coalitions in the advocacy context.

In the article, I’ll discuss best practices for launching a coalition, some thoughts on different types of coalitions, and best practices for sustaining a coalition.

But first, an obvious first question: what is a coalition?  My simplest use of the term for purposes of this article: any effort involving more than two organizations choosing to work together for some shared purpose beyond just a one-time event/project.  By this token, I’m using the word coalition for a catch-all term that could encompass structures that may go by a different name, such as network, alliance, partnership, etc.

Best practices for launching a coalition

Step 1: Determine and start with the core.  This is everyone who has to be involved, not necessarily everyone who’ll ultimately be invited.  Who are the organizations who you’d consider essential?

Step 2: Take the core’s temperature.  This is best done in a series of one-on-one conversations.  In my experience, you’re more likely to get candor one-on-one.  If there aren’t at least a few people enthusiastic, it’s okay to pull the plug at this stage.

Step 3: Meet to answer 5 key questions.  This could happen at a single meeting, but I find it often takes two meetings, and I’ve been involved in at least one coalition where it took four.

Question 1: What’s the purpose of the coalition?   Is it around a specific policy outcome with a defined period of time to pass it or a topic area where the coalition would want to make progress over time?  Or is it about building capacity of the coalition’s members, irrespective of any policy goal?

Question2: What type of coalition makes sense given the purpose?  I’ll discuss this question further below. 

It’s a really good idea to put the answers to Questions 1 and 2 into writing.

Question 3: Given the purpose and type of coalition, what system of decision-making makes sense? 

Question 4: What is/are the initial priority or priorities for coordinated work?  If there’s no shared initial action to take in the next year, it’s probably premature to launch.

Question 5: Where will the resources come for the collective work?  Are you counting on additional outside resources to flow into the coalition?  Will coalition participants pool funds in some way and then hire/contract with someone to coordinate/lead?  Or will coalition members directly expend resources to do the work?

More on types of coalitions

There are many types of coalitions, but I find they usually fit into one of five categories.

Networks are when organizations that come together with the primary purpose of sharing information to allow for ad hoc coordination where interests overlap, so as to decrease duplication of effort and identify opportunities for greater impact. 

Associations are when organizations come together to advance the long-term interest of their members, with a primary focus on building up the capacity of the members, via shared resources and shared capacity building.

Coordinated projects are when organizations come together to advance a very specific project.  Obviously, if it’s a really simple, short-term project, you wouldn’t need a coalition. So presumably these would be complex, longer-term projects. It could be advocacy focused (e.g. pass a bill) or it could be generating more public attention to an issue (e.g. such as issuing a shared report).  

Campaign coalitions are a special type of Coordinated Project that usually involves advocacy around a fixed deadline, such as an election or the end of a Legislative Session. 

Strategic Alliances are when organizations come together around an issue or related set of issues where they hope to make progress over an extended period of time. Example: reduce air pollution in Oregon. A strategic alliance may spawn campaign coalitions or coordinated projects that involve other participants who aren’t part of the overall alliance.  

Extensions of a lead organization are when organizations come together under the leadership of a single, well-funded organization using a coalition structure to advance an outcome, and the other organizations are just fine playing a more supportive role. 

How do you decide which is appropriate?

Focus on the why behind the coalition.  Discuss and pick the most appropriate, but don’t feel you have to stay constrained by the options above.  You can create your own model.  Just be sure that the participants are in alignment about what you’re doing and why.

Why do some coalition launches fail?

In my experience, the number one reason is lack of individual leadership.  That’s partly why taking the temperature of the core is essential up-front.  I was once hired to help launch a coalition and we skipped the one-on-ones up-front and went straight to holding two initial meetings.  Everyone agreed upon the purpose, the type of coalition, governance, and an initial policy priority.  But then it fell apart. 

Why? Because nobody was prepared to lead.  The group instigating the initial meeting (and who paid me) assumed someone else would step up.  Nobody would agree to chair the coalition, plan for the meetings, or make it a major focus. 

Some individual with at least one of the groups needs to “own” a sense of responsibility and have sufficient time to invest to lead.

Sustaining coalitions

I see five keys: communications, power, planning, behavior, and personal relationships.

Communications: Failure to communicate internally can lead to schisms, with insiders and outsiders.  There needs to be enough meetings and materials shared between meetings, but not so many to bog things down.

Power: Not all coalition partners are equal, especially if the members of the coalition include some of very different organizational size/capacity.  In my experience, it’s best to be open in acknowledging such imbalances when setting up the governance.  There’s no one right answer to how to address power imbalances, but in my experience it’s best to openly discuss them than pretend they don’t exist.

Planning systems:  Like with individual organizations, failure to plan is planning to fail.  It’s really important to have agreement on the major strategies being pursued.  Not all members of the coalition will have the same strategic orientation, so it’s best to openly discuss this and hopefully reach alignment.

Any coalition planning should also establish an intention regarding whether to add/grow the coalition.  Coalition growth is not valuable for its own sake.  Be clear on why you’re going to invite others if that’s the intent.

Whatever planning should engage the participants who’re going to be counted on to implement it.  That means setting aside the time to do this planning. I’ve seen coalitions go seriously awry because they launched too precipitously into action and discovered too late that the coalition members were fundamentally at odd as to their overall strategy.

Behavior: The two most common things that can go wrong here are lack of transparency – where some coalition partners are keeping things to themselves, and confidentiality – where some coalition partners intentionally or inadvertently share information externally that was meant to be internal.   Another challenge can be around taking and sharing credit.  Having an open conversation about this can be helpful.

Of course, while you can come up with codes of conduct, norms around communications, or other techniques to address behavior, personal behavior also matters.  I saw one coalition really struggle because the person assigned to participate from one of the leading participants was just plain rude in how he treated people (he was not self-aware and I’m convinced he didn’t realize his tone and manner was consistently rude). It made people not want to work as part of the coalition anymore.

Relationships matter: The flip side to the example of a rude person shutting down a coalition is that coalitions function better when the participants get to know and like each other as individuals. Finding some opportunities for coalition participants to interact beyond the confines of coalition meetings can be really valuable for the long-term health of a coalition.

Do you have advice of your own to offer when it comes to launching or sustaining a coalition? Please share it with a comment!

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Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory

October 31, 2016

Filed under: Advocacy,Human Resources,Leadership,Volunteers — jonathanpoisner @ 1:22 pm

Why Volunteers and a Spiderman Theory of Volunteer Responsibility

Most organizations with whom I consult make some effort to involve volunteers.

Some are wildly successful.  Others are not.

There are many factors that lead some to be more successful than others, but two stand out that I want to explore in this article.

First, most successful programs are crystal clear about why they’re mobilizing volunteers and they design their program accordingly.

Second, most successful programs find the right balance between asking volunteers to take responsibility and giving them power.   That gives rise to my Spiderman theory of volunteer management.

Why Volunteers?

Before we can get to Spiderman, it’s important to first ask the question: why volunteers?  There are dozens of potential answers, but in general they tend to fit into three big categories:

  1. Getting more stuff done
  2. Building power
  3. Generating leaders

Getting more stuff done

If I’m a staff person for an organization, I can spend an hour doing an activity.  1 person x 1 hour = 1 unit of activity.

If instead I spend that hour recruiting volunteers and find one volunteer who’ll show up and do the activity for 3 hours, then I’ve magically transformed my 1 hour into 3 units of activity.

Of course, there are many assumptions here, such as the assumption of 1 hour = 1 volunteer recruited, that the volunteer can do the activity as effectively as the staff person, that it won’t take even more staff time overseeing the volunteer, etc.

Each organization needs to unpack the various activities for which it’s looking to use volunteers and run the math (using the best estimates you can for your rate of volunteer recruitment, how much training and oversight time will be needed).  Then it can answer the question:  will a volunteer recruitment focus lead to more bang for the buck than just doing the work without volunteers.

Building power

Organizations also use volunteers to build power.  To the extent our organizations are trying to impact public decision-making, perceptions of political power matter.  And in general, organizations who appear to be backed by lots of people have more power than those backed by fewer.  And volunteer activity can be harnessed to be visible to public officials.

Beyond this general maxim, it’s also the case that public officials are more likely to respond to the pleas of their constituents than they are to paid staff for organizations.  Of course, that assumes the constituents are on-message, well trained, etc.  And not all constituents are equal – as much as we wish they were.  Some constituents will be especially appealing to some elected officials based on their role in the community (e.g. business owner, clergy, neighborhood leader, etc.).

Generating leaders

Beyond building power and getting more stuff done, we also use volunteers to generate leaders.

Within our organizations, we’re always looking for the next set of board members and those willing to take on higher-level responsibilities.  If we don’t involve volunteers at the more basic level, it will be harder to identify organizational leaders or take potential board members out for a “test drive” in some other role.

In addition, to the extent our organizations are part of movements, we are hoping to generate movement-leadership as well.   In training a volunteer, they may wind up taking on leadership for an allied organization.  At OLCV, I always took pride when our volunteers wound up serving as staff for other organizations after going through our training program.  Since our organization’s vision was explicitly to serve a network/movement, we saw that as a clearly positive outcome.

Matching your volunteer program to your primary reason

It would be easy to just say: “we want all three of the above” as the reason for a volunteer program.  But in my experience, especially when organizations are first really investing in their volunteer program, it’s important to decide their primary objective among the three, and then design their program accordingly.

  • A getting more stuff done emphasis may lead to a focus on clear, simple-to-do tasks and urgent campaigns around which to motivate lots of volunteers.
  • A building power emphasis may mean a focus not on the overall number of volunteers, but rather identifying volunteers from key audiences (the constituency being served, influential within the community, etc.).
  • A generating leaders emphasis may lead to a focus on a smaller number of volunteers recruited to take on higher-level tasks with a lot of training and relationship-building baked into the program.

Matching power and responsibility

That gives rise to the second point I want to make about effective volunteer programs – they find the right balance between asking people to take responsibility and giving them power.

That’s where Spiderman comes in.  Spidey’s catchphrase is: “With great power comes great responsibility.”  My volunteer corollary for that is:  “If you want your volunteers to take on real responsibility, you must give them real power.”

Many organizations vest real power in their board and zero power in their other volunteers and then wonder why those other volunteers won’t take on more responsibility.  This becomes particularly challenging if the organization’s plan relies on creating a core group of “mid-level” volunteers who’re there to do more than take on tasks, but less than the obligations of board service.

In my experience, the solution lies in providing zones of authority for these mid-level volunteers.  These are areas where they have responsibility and with it, some power to make decisions – whether on organizational policy or allocation of organizational resources.

This can be scary for some boards because it means these mid-level volunteers can make mistakes.  In my experience, though, as long as appropriate side boards are put in place, giving these mid-level volunteers (working through committees, task forces, work groups, etc.) authority can vastly expand their commitment to the organization – and from it the level of work they take on.

During my time at OLCV, this played out with multiple straight election cycles where our campaigns involved more than 1000 volunteers, heavily fueled by chapter steering committees recruiting their friends and families to volunteer.

Of course, your mileage may vary.  The devil’s in the details.

Each organization needs to find the right balance given their organizational culture, lay of the land, and priorities.  But better to think this through explicitly rather than leave it to chance.

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Science fiction and my call to service

March 25, 2015

Filed under: About My Work,Advocacy — jonathanpoisner @ 12:21 pm

I was recently asked why I felt called to service. As it was asked, the question related specifically to my career’s focus on helping nonprofit organizations, either by working for them directly or as a contractor.

After reflecting a bit, I gave an answer that surprised even me.

I think my call to service was informed by reading a lot of science fiction growing up.

The science fiction I read growing up alternatively presented really positive, uplifting, exciting views of the future, or really dark, negative, challenging views of the future.

Most importantly, the books often focused on pivot points where things either went from “good” to “bad” or “bad” to “good.” And the characters in the books often played a key role in these pivot points.

I think this taught me two lessons in particular.

First, the future won’t necessarily look like the present. Change is possible, if not inevitable.

Second, individuals can have a real impact on what change happens.

Both are key to the mindset of someone who “fights the good fight” for social change.

If you don’t believe the future can be a lot different from today, you’ll be resigned to just let things be.

And if you don’t believe individuals can have an impact, why get involved?

So if you’re a parent who wants their child to become involved in social change work over the long run, pick out some good science fiction books and give them to your child.

Next step for me: work on a blog post outlining which science fiction books most impacted me.

Was there a science fiction book that had a big impact on you?

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Great study on citizen to Congress communication

February 4, 2011

Filed under: Advocacy,Communications — Tags: , , — jonathanpoisner @ 8:32 am

Great study showing how Congressional staff rate different forms of communications as a means to influence members of Congress.

The bottom line: personal is king, and content is more important than volume.

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