How to start a community coalition

So you’ve started a community group. Congratulations! Forming a community coalition might be the next step after your community group is established and running successfully. A coalition can increase your likelihood of positively impacting your community.

What is a coalition?

A coalition can be defined as a temporary alliance between groups for a common goal. If you are addressing the concerns of a community, it is often called a community coalition.

A coalition can be defined as a temporary alliance between groups for a common goal.

With an objective in mind – passing a particular piece of legislation, environmental justice or stopping the building of a new waste disposal site – coalitions have limited lifespans until the objectives are achieved.

What are the benefits of building a coalition?

A primary reason coalitions are built is that by working together, groups can accomplish more together than they would on their own.

The broader your coalition, the less your cause will be seen as partisan.

The broader the perceived political persuasion of your coalition, the less your cause will be seen as partisan. When a diverse range of groups is united, it increases the legitimacy of the cause. Other advantages to building a coalition include:

  • Avoid duplicating efforts, eliminate competition for resources, and improve communication within the community.
  • Each member group will have the opportunity to broaden its base.
  • Partners in a coalition can learn new tactics from each other.
  • There will be more people to work on the campaign, requiring less bandwidth from each organization.
  • Creates a more diverse base of support to increase credibility. A diverse coalition makes it difficult for the initiative to be written off as a special interest.1

Common challenges coalitions face

When forming a coalition, there are challenges to overcome. Most have to do with maintaining clear lines of communication between members, such as:

  • Making decisions – There needs to be a clear understanding of, and agreement on, how decisions are made.
  • Resolving disputes – Create a clear and accepted method of resolving conflicts within the coalition set up in advance of any potential problems.
  • Maintaining trust – Encourage all members of the coalition to be open about their concerns.
  • Sharing workload – Ensure that all members pull their weight.
  • Coalition messaging – Create and agree on the campaign’s talking points. Organizations are often specific about the message they are willing to align themselves.
  • Receiving credit – Coalition partners need to receive the credit they deserve.
  • Conflicting priorities – It’s natural that different groups will have different priorities. Sometimes, those priorities may conflict. What’s important is that all members agree to put differences aside and work towards the coalition’s goal.

Your role as coalition organizer

As the individual or group organizing the coalition, it’s your responsibility to provide the initial direction. Draft a clear mission statement that concisely states the coalition’s objectives. Then, develop a framework for the steps used to achieve the mission. Be prepared to take on many roles, including organizer, educator, counselor, conflict mediator, strategist, and visionary.

As the group organizing the coalition, it’s your responsibility to provide direction.

To maintain a successful coalition, make sure to:

  • Develop a one-to-one relationship with each member.
  • Be proactive in resolving conflicts.
  • Maintain the coalition’s forward momentum, even after a setback.
  • Show your appreciation for the work that coalition members are doing.2

How do you decide who to recruit into a coalition?

When considering what organizations to contact, imagine a best-case scenario for your campaign. For example, if there is a proposed landfill you feel will harm your community, you’ll want to find organizations at all levels of stakeholdership.

Don’t write off anyone as an opponent.

Questions you may ask yourself include:

  • Are there any schools, colleges or universities nearby? If yes, you may want to ask the student associations, local school board, parent-teacher associations, and teacher unions to join a coalition to halt the landfill development.
  • Are there medical facilities? If there are places where immunocompromised people frequent, such as health clinics, hospitals, assisted living facilities, or nursing homes, you may find allies.
  • Are there any local environmental advocacy organizations?
  • Are there locally active political groups? If you can recruit political groups from diverse standpoints, your coalition will be strengthened.
  • Would the landfill negatively affect local businesses? Chambers of Commerce and local small business associations could be powerful coalition allies.
  • Would the landfill affect local property values? Look to real estate and homeowner associations.

Don’t write off anyone as an opponent. You may be surprised who could be your ally for a particular cause.

How to reach out to potential members

Once you have identified your potential coalition members, it’s time to strategize on how you will reach out to them.

  • Frame your argument accordingly. Each organization has a purpose for existing. Your pitch to join the coalition needs to target those specific concerns. For example, your message to a small business association will be very different than to a parent-teacher association.
  • Offer multiple levels of commitment. This allows the overworked groups to participate, adding to the coalition’s diversity.
  • Be clear about the time and effort expected from each commitment level.
  • Ask each group to suggest other organizations that might be able to serve on the coalition.

Coalitions are tremendous agents of change. They can make the difference between finding success or getting ignored. Develop a coalition with a range of effective partners, and increase your likelihood of positively impacting your community.3

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