The Intersection: Jun 2011

Welcome to The Intersection, a series designed to help you anticipate and prepare for public policy challenges and opportunities.

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Are You Coalition-Ready?

If you are in Washington, chances are that you or your organization has been part of, is part of, or is considering joining an advocacy coalition – those single-issue, ad-hoc, typically industry-based groups with friendly-sounding names like “Coalition for Fairness,” “Partnership to Protect Families” or “Americans for Things that Sound Wonderful.” Behind these coalitions reside companies, trade associations, nonprofits or even other coalitions who have built alliances with like-minded organizations.

As businesses grow and diversify over time, it is increasingly challenging for companies to find goal congruence within their own industries when it comes to public policy. This may at least partially explain why a 2008 study by the Foundation for Public Affairs found that nearly half of all companies said they have increased their reliance on coalitions in the preceding three years – with only three percent reporting less reliance on coalitions. At the same time, only 38 percent of firms reported increasing their reliance on trade associations.

Major policy victories in Congress and with regulators have shown that if companies and individuals band together for a cause, they can speak with a much louder voice. But whether that collective voice is best served by an ad-hoc coalition is a decision that should not be taken lightly. Coalitions are not for everyone. Organizations must take into consideration a number of factors to determine whether joining a coalition is an effective strategy.

Organizational Effectiveness as a Coalition Member

Before forming or joining a coalition, any organization must ask, “Is my organization goal-congruent with other members?” One notable example of a coalition’s divergent goals is the U.S. Climate Action Partnership, a coalition which in 2009 was instrumental in building support for capping U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. Legislation passed in the House, but members of USCAP became divided as Congress added provisions that some coalition members could not support. These events are difficult to predict as coalitions form, but transparent and candid discussions regarding limitations can help to alleviate these challenges during the advocacy process.

Other questions your organization should ask before forming or joining a coalition include:

“What do we bring to the table?” You must identify – for your own organization as well as for others around the table – what makes your organization a critical part of the coalition. Do you bring financial resources? In-kind services? Relationships? Expertise? Reputation? Time? Articulating this value-add for both internal audiences and your future partners will build the foundation for effective collaboration.

“What do we need from the coalition?” During a campaign, a sense of group altruism will often set in, making some feel hesitant to state their needs – particularly if those needs are different from those of other coalition members. However, coalition effectiveness is built when organizations are transparent regarding any perceived conflicts between the coalition’s and a company’s own organizational strategies.

“Can we make a commitment of senior-level staff participation?” Coalition members will be required to make real-time decisions on lobbying strategies, communications strategies, messaging and materials. Particularly for those involved in legislative or regulatory campaigns, the speed with which these decisions are made can often be the difference between a win or a loss. Without an organization’s ability to staff the coalition properly, it should not engage.

Individual Effectiveness

Ensuring you have the right individual within your organization to be the interface with the coalition is just as important a question to explore. The most effective coalition representatives share common characteristics:

Ability to build strategic partnerships. Success within a coalition will often hinge upon an individual, his or her own interpersonal skills, and his or her ability to develop strong working relationships with others. Groups and alliances may form within a coalition. The ability for your organization’s designee to play a role in this dynamic will ultimately help your organization achieve its goals.

Leadership within their own organizations. Your designee must be able to communicate effectively within your organization the nature of the coalition’s actions and, as noted above, be senior enough in order to make real-time decisions on behalf of your organization. More importantly, the individual must have an ability to mobilize others within your organization. The most effective coalitions are ones where all members are highly involved participants – both individually and organizationally.

Managerial Effectiveness

Many coalitions will often hire experienced professionals to handle the day-to-day management of the coalition – guiding the group to think ahead, see around corners, and focus on forward motion. Whether a coalition member or an external professional, an effective coalition manager must have the ability to draw out participation among members by communicating frequently, regularly and productively. Conflict resolution and consensus building are also key attributes, particularly in coalitions with diverse memberships. Finally, management must clearly define roles for staff and members – a move that will bring clarity and definition, ensuring longer-term viability and fewer chances for error during more intense phases of the campaign.

Coalitions can be an extraordinarily helpful tool, particularly when organizations lack resources or diverse voices. And, given today’s fast-paced online world where any individual can easily become an active participant in the political process, the ability to amplify coalition messages over external noise is crucial to launch issues onto the public agenda. Approaching the decision to engage – or pass – in a thoughtful, strategic manner will provide you with the best possible opportunity to achieve your own organization’s goals.