Circling the Wagons: Building a Successful Coalition

In Washington, the benefits of a coalition are well-known. They provide an opportunity to increase your reach, amplify your messages, grow your resources and coalesce, sometimes diverse, voices around a common cause. While these benefits are clear, the harder questions address how to get a coalition off the ground, and how to manage it in a way that is both efficient, but also respectful of individual members’ concerns.

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a Public Affairs Council conference on “Managing Strategic Coalitions and Alliances,” where we explored the common questions and challenges that occur when starting, maintaining or – yes – ending a coalition. The panels were informative and included a wide array of thoughts, but three core questions that are fundamental to the entire life cycle of a coalition kept coming up:

  1. What are your goals?
  2. How are you funding your coalition (or does your coalition need funding)?
  3. How are you making decisions?

What are your goals?

Goals for a project or campaign are a known necessity, but how to set those goals is the more complex issue. When developing your coalition, and identifying your members, it is essential to consider the needs of those individual organizations and how they will affect the coalition’s mission. Setting a goal from the start will allow you to remain focused on the coalition’s success while organizing its foundation. Whatever the goal of the coalition is, it needs to be understood and agreed to formally by all members in order to ensure success. The specificity of the goal is also an important thing to consider – a goal that is too narrow may limit the number of members you are able to attract.

How are you funding your coalition?

It can sometimes be more important to consider the “if” before the “how” when it comes to funding a coalition with a budget that is separate from the organizing member’s budget. This was an interesting point of division among some of the panelists at the conference. On one hand, it could be argued that funding a coalition at the start encourages buy-in once organizations agree to join and allows the coalition to fund paid media efforts and any campaign activities.

On the other hand, there is the possibility that requesting funds up-front from potential members discourages participation, especially among organizations that may be eager to participate, but have limited budgets. In many ways, funding can act as a barrier to entry, which can limit the number of voices you have championing your cause – arguably, the number one purpose, for having a coalition.

In the end, there really is no right or wrong answer for the “funding question.” But this is a vital factor that Each coalition will need to consider quickly. For some, there may be an imminent need to campaign on your issue, which requires a team and a budget, and also money. However, your biggest need may be to get people on your side, working toward your goal. Big or small, it may be the number of members that counts and you don’t want funding to get in the way of that.

How are you making decisions?

Time and time again, coalitions dissolve because members couldn’t agree on a direction. Usually this stems from one of two causes: either the members no longer agree on the set goals or the coalition lacks a clear governance structure and vehicle for decision-making. While funding can help guide a governance structure, it is important to be wary of the “one dollar, one vote” method of coalition management. It is often the case that smaller members are also the members with the most interest in maintaining a coalition that is giving them a louder voice on their issues.

If you aren’t using funding, how do you keep your coalition running smoothly? The answer – clear expectations and agreed upon terms. When you are setting up a coalition, be clear about who is making the decisions and how members will play a role in that process. Have your membership formally agree to those principles and designate someone to “call the shots.” Make the process transparent and communicate effectively. In most cases, it is information that members are moist interested in, not outright control.

Beyond these essential questions, coalitions also need to consider their objectives and determine methods and metrics for tracking success (or failure) and the means for communicating the metrics. Coalitions are only as effective as they are efficient, and clear guidelines and objectives are the best way to ensure that efficiency. In Washington, there is a coalition or association for everything, but those that consider these questions in advance will be the most successful in achieving their goals.

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Circling the Wagons: Building a Successful Coalition

In Washington, the benefits of a coalition are well-known. They provide an opportunity to increase your reach, amplify your messages, grow your resources and coalesce, sometimes diverse, voices around a common cause. While these benefits are clear, the harder questions address how to get a coalition off the ground, and how to manage it in a way that is both efficient, but also respectful of individual members’ concerns.
Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a Public Affairs Council conference on “Managing Strategic Coalitions and Alliances,” where we explored the common questions and challenges that occur when starting, maintaining or – yes – ending a coalition. The panels were informative and included a wide array of thoughts, but three core questions …

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Advocacy

 

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