How To Build Coalitions

how to build a coalition

You carefully research your topic, spend hours writing an amazing article. Edit and then re-edit, checking for accuracy and flow. You take the time to create original images or you search through hundreds of images until you find the ones that speak perfectly to your issue.  You work out which platforms you will use to share your article and then you stop. That’s it.  Chances are, if that’s all you do, only you…and maybe your mom will read your article. If you want reach a broader audience, you need to reach out and share with your network.

If you’re a blogger, you become part of a blogging community. Fellow bloggers can lend guidance, support and generally make things easier for you to reach your goals and your audience.

The same applies for most government relations campaigns. Government is obliged to think about public interest, so if you want action or attention, you generally have to position your issue as having relevance for more than just you or your organization.  If there are people in your community or in your sector that agree with your issue, you can use each other as additional resources to support your objectives.  That collective energy can sometimes mean the difference between being the lone voice in the wilderness and having the benefits of stereo and a good set of speakers. Forming effective coalitions is an efficient way to get your message out and keep it out. So what’s a coalition? Coalitions are really just alliances, unions or partnerships; they act to bring together like minded individuals to pursue a common goal. If you decide to start a coalition, there are few things you should keep in mind.

Define Your Goal: The first thing you want to determine is what that common goal is. There is no value in assuming what your partners want.  Put it in writing and ensure you all agree or you may find yourself arguing at the worst possible time…like in front of the government official you are trying to persuade. A colleague of mind experienced this while sitting in a Minister’s office with coalition members, talk about awkward.

Coordinate your activities. It is best if you coordinate your approach so that you are getting the biggest bang for your buck. If your issue is particularly complicated, it might mean taking your time and having everyone deliver the same message but each partner  emphasizing a different perspectives.  Even when messages seem simplecoalitionscoordination is critical because sending multiple messages or competing perspectives can undermine everyone’s objectives. Competing perspectives force the issue to slow down and puts the legislator, often the  informed on a topic, into the role of mediator or judge. It can also mean that you will spend  valuable time explaining someone else’s perspective.

Be clear on everyone’s commitment at the start. As you consider the likely benefits of a coalition keep in mind that while often all it takes to start something is one person, to keep things going generally requires a little help.  Having a conversation about the degree of time, effort and resources each coalition member  is prepared to commit to the process is an important part of avoiding disappointment or frustration later on.

A coalition should reduce not increase your workload. Coalition activity should reduce labor for all participants.  If you find you’re working harder than ever and making less or little process, you need to rethink your partnership.

You have to trust your partners. and like any partnership, there has to be trust.  If there is a group or organization that shares your perspective but there is something about them that you do not trust or find unsavory, then don’t partner.  Your negative feelings will eventually manifest themselves in ways that may undermine your objectives. You may also put yourself into a position of lying to the legislator about your commitment to the group, and honesty must be the underpinning of all government engagement.

Getting started doesn’t need to be complicated. Sometimes gathering people around a cause is as straightforward as talking to your neighbors or friends about an issue. In business settings it may mean requesting a meeting and presenting a proposal for common action.  While you may not want your coalition to become too unwieldy, if at first you can only think of one or two partners, ask each of them to think of another possible member for your coalition.

Stretch scarce resources through collective action. Coalitions are also a great way to get more accomplished with less.  They let legislators know that they will have a broader band of support for their actions if they support your cause and they reduce the stress on any one individual or organization of carrying the entire communications burden.

Compromise is key to success. The thing to keep in mind with coalitions is that it can’t be all about you. You will generally have to make compromises if it’s going to work. It is difficult to imagine (if not impossible) that any gathering of people will have identical ideas on how to achieve goals. be open to suggestion, but not so open you find yourself working on issues you don’t care about.

Keep it simple. Coalitions work best if the issue they are addressing is kept simple and the duration short.  Usually if the issues expand and the coalition continues to function over a longer period it becomes more of an association or society. Keeping issues simple means it will be easier to maintain consensus, so keep the common elements simple and clear.

Coalitions work in all kinds of settings,  whether it’s neighbors opposing local construction projects or bloggers working together to address common challenges. Have you ever had to become part of a team or coalition in order to get something done? What was the toughest part?  What was the easiest?

About Debra Yearwood

Experienced communications and public relations executive who manages challenges with an eye on outcomes and a sense of humour. Learn more about how I think at https://commstorm.com/ Learn more about my experience at ca.linkedin.com/in/debrayearwood/
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30 Responses to How To Build Coalitions

  1. Jeri Walker-Bickett (@JeriWB) says:

    Oh dear, how many times did I have to collaborate on classroom improvement ideas only to see the newly implemented ideas go by the wayside? Education likes to jump on the next bandwagon without fully assessing the pros and cons. The toughest part is many of the decisions come from people who have spent little to no time in the classroom. The easy part is when everyone can establish common goals before getting too far into the process. It’s best to get everything out on the table so everyone understands expectations up front. One of my former co-workers wanted to start Professional Learning Communities within my school, but the idea never really took off. It’s important for all professions to be able to develop sense of community and support.

    • Jeri the disconnect between those who do and those who tell others what to do has got to be one of the most pervasive failings in our culture. It’s not that administrators, bosses or political leaders don’t want to do the right thing, it’s just that they think they should know all the answers. Crazy, impossible, but there is an underlying expectation that leaders are all knowing. Very little good can come from that disconnected decision making.

      When I first encountered the concept of communities of practice several years ago I thought it was amazing, nothing has changed. So much good can come from collective thinking, when you have agreed upon goals, it amazes me that COPs are not more pervasive.

  2. When I was in the agency business we had a creative director whose mantra was “two heads are better than one, four heads are better than two and eight heads are better than four.” He meant by that the groups can solve my problems than an individual when we bring together people with different perspectives. Then you have a choice of solutions.

    • Jeannete that’s a perspective that’s increasingly taking hold in organizations. It wasn’t that long ago that asking employees what they thought the strategic direction of a firm should be would be unheard of. Yet we are seeing companies like 3M, Dutch insurer Aegon, Red Hat and of course, Wikipedia do just that. We are moving from a perspective that says knowledge is power to one that says, knowledge shared is power squared.

  3. becc03 says:

    I ran a social club for many years at my old work. I found the same issues as other commenters on your post. That I ended up doing more work as the other committee members would fail to complete their tasks. When it worked well and everyone pulled their own weight, it was great.

    • Social committees can be brutal. High expectations coupled with differing opinions and varying levels of engagement. Like any coalition activity, the members have to be clear from the start on what their objectives are and what degree of commitment they are willing to give. The challenge of course is that sometimes social committees members are voluntold they are participating or otherwise pressured into it. If that’s the case, then good luck! 🙂

  4. There can be many definitions of coalitions, I think. Essentially it’s a group of like-minded individuals focused on improving the common good – or is that too loose a definition? I belong to a writers’ group here in Toronto, the local chapter of a national group, that does a *lot* of work to advocate for writers’ rights. There is strength in numbers! In fact, I think for writers, who often work in solitude, coalitions – or variations thereof – are as necessary as oxygen. Like the song says, “people who need people…”

    • I think your definition is pretty good. I also think your point around the objective of a coalition is spot on. They may seem like foreign concepts, but coalitions (even when the don’t carry that name) are what the average person forms when they have to confront a challenge bigger than them. Coalitions break down walls, create equality and are generally why we have a more or less civil society. 🙂

  5. Tanya says:

    I think many of the same rules ring true for any type of relationship, be it business or personal. Compromise and trust are essential, and you all must have the same basic principals, the same goals. That’s the only way that a coalition will work. Great article!

    • Absolutely. I think sometimes people forget in business situations that they are still dealing with people. It’s an old axiom, but still a true one, if we consistently treat others the way we want to be treated, we’re more likely to reach the outcomes we expect (and want) …and it takes a lot of tension out of business deals. 🙂

  6. I’m all about collaboration and cooperation. Works well, as long as you’re not dealing with someone who has an ego the size of a truck. It’s then pretty much impossible!

  7. Three things stood out to me. Define your goal. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve ask the question what is your goal and would get a blank stare. Then they would come up with a pat answer that they had rehearse in the event someone would asked. They may have been told what the goal is but having by-in was another thing.

    Keeping it simple isn’t simple… when you’re working within a committee structure… enough said 😀

    The last one is trust your partner. Sometimes we do and sometimes we don’t. It all gets down the to same thing, by-in to the endgame or goal. I could go on but I won’t bore you… 😀

    • I laughed out loud when I read your comment about the blank stare. I too have encountered that look more often than I’d like.It’s amazing how far people can go without asking themselves what they are trying to achieve. As far as trust goes, even if you’ve made everything else perfect, without trust it’s pointless.

  8. It has been fascinating here in the USA (if you’re a political junkie like I am) to watch various interest groups try to form coalitions. In the US, we basically have a two party system under the continual threat of third parties forming. At present, this is serving to move the Republican party to the right. What seems to be happening is that to be a player or chosen as a political candidate in the Republican party, you have to be very conservative; but then, if the goal of the party is to be elected, the conservative litmus test results in the Republicans fielding candidates that do not appeal to the moderate center of the country. It seems that the Republican party has to decide what their goal is— ideological purity or winning elections. Until there is agreement on this, it is very difficult for the “team” to move forward.

    We saw the power of an informal coalition recently when a large PR company tried to trademark an established blogger’s brand. After lots of negative “press” from the blogging community, they backed down. See, AroundTheWorldIn80Jobs.

    • I’ve been watching the Republican Party struggles (from afar). Ideology means very little without power and without your base support it’s difficult to win. All political parties go through a process of struggle and generally rebirth, at some point. It usually comes after they have been in power for too long. That sounds like the Republicans and our Liberal’s here in Canada. The Liberals considered themselves the “natural” governing party. They didn’t garner enough votes to be the official opposition after the last election, so had to rethink how “natural” the power base was.

      There has been chatter that the Liberals should join the New Democratic Party to form government. Not an outrageous coalition. The Conservative Party is formed from a coalition of Progressive Conservatives and Reformers. While it’s hard to judge how long it will take before a party finally sorts itself out, eventually the desire for power pulls all parties towards the centre and uneasy coalitions form, even if they only form inside party lines.

      I caught the AroundtheWorldin80jobs fiasco and was absolutely outraged on behalf of the blogger. I’m glad that sorted itself out in his favor.

  9. Arleen says:

    Government is obliged to think about public interest, Not sure that is true in the US. Years ago I became part of a team to get something done in our neighborhood. What was interesting almost everyone was on board. We were all getting excited that there was really going to be a change. It took one celebrity in our neighborhood to criticize what we were doing and everything feel apart as if he was a God. After that experience I must say I never wanted to get involved again

    • Ugh!! What a nightmare and how totally undemocratic. My instincts are to ask a bunch of questions about what was done after the celebrity made their stance, but it’s not as important as what the consequences of the intervention was. What matters is that one individual was allowed to demoralize a neighborhood. I know these things happen, I also know the impact they have on civil engagement and that’s by far more concerning than what they derailed. How many initiatives get left undone because people are reluctant to engage because it feels like the deck is always stacked against them? I don’t know about you, but I find that both enraging and deeply disturbing. It’s one of the reasons I like to share the tips that I do. It’s tiresome watching people who think the world owes them a living get away with their demands. I’d like to see the people who are willing to work for what they want get the tools to succeed.

  10. I think now that we are adults we can chose the right teams to participate in but alas there are times when we are partnered with the wrong team. I have to say I am blessed to be partnered with some wonderful people in some mastermind groups and groups like BHB.

    • I agree. We have so much more control over who we partner with then we did as a child. I’ve been fortunate in working with some amazing teams as an adult, so I don’t carry any bad vibes about it. The BHB group reinforces that on a regular basis.

  11. mkslagel says:

    I know you mentioned it on the LinkedIn, but this article did really remind me of BHB too. That is all I could think about as I was reading it but I agree that coalitions can be used in several areas of life and working together can be quite important.

    • Mary, I think the BHB group is the perfect example of what a coalition can do and I’m glad you brought it back to the blog. When you pull together a group of like minded individuals they can become more than the sum of their parts. It’s not that we all have the same goals, but we have just enough alignment to help each other. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t learn something new from a group member.

  12. Sound advice on how to build a coalition, Debra.

    The same applies to being partners in business. Believe it or not, but the conservative Swedish government is planning to raise taxes for business people who jointly own a company. So the solution is that each “partner” has his/her own company. But it’s still essential to agree from the start who does what, where and why. If not you will have arguments down the line. Having said that compromise, as you point out, is essential. But you have to be really clear about finances. If not an argument is as sure as Amen in church:-)

  13. Cassi says:

    Throughout school when we were put on teams I hated it. Someone would fail to do their part so I’d have to end up doing more. I haven’t had to deal with teams in the workplace.

    • I can’t say I remember getting any joy out of school teams myself and from what my daughter and son share, not much has changed. The experiences I’ve had as an adult have been much better though every once in a while I still get thrown. It’s one of the reasons I always ask about mandate and duration.

    • My mind went to the same place. Teams in school were horrible. Basd on those experiences, is it any wonder that most of us now go out of our way to avoid teams in the workplace?

      • I am grateful that for one reason or another (no doubt the requirement of politics) I’ve been forced to work in a variety of teams since high school. They have been so successful that when it came time for me to consider joining a moms soccer team, I was willing to take the leap and have loved every minute since. I occasionally come across a group that would be better served if it disbanded, but those are not the norm. Thank goodness!!!

        • Laurel says:

          I love your blog on coalitions Debra. Personally, I am very proud of a coalition that I put together that comprised of over 1 million self employed professionals in order to convince the Canadian government to provide greater options for retirement savings mechanisms for these individuals. Your advice is precisely what we managed to put into action and in fact pull off together as a larger group (there were 15 professional Associations represented). The incredible part of coalitions is the momentum building that occurs. While it is intangible, we certain felt our campaign gaining momentum and increased uptake from elected and non-elected decision makers. Our group was dynamic, energetic and excited, like most teams I have worked with when forwarding public policy.

          I must admit that I do not share the sentiments above on teams or group work. I think that either you are a team player or you are not (and both are necessary, so I am not judging), and I think that everyone of can identify at least one individual that you have come across either at work, school in the neighbourhood who is definitely NOT a team player.(I think that like the celebrity mentioned above who made one comment and derailed a neighbourhood coalition, they had an ulterior motive – perhaps their fame was dwindling?

          Every semester, I have my students work in teams on a group presentation – Oh the kick back is incredible!!! However, once they understand why and how teams can and do in fact succeed, (i.e. I provide a matrix defining the roles, responsibilities, shared challenges and shared benefits of the team) I have the students fill out self evaluation forms about the group project after they presentations and most students express that they have learned some valuable lessons from team work. The truth is that we need groups and teams, and the old saying about “strength in numbers” does sway public opinion and government decision making.

          • Thank you Laurel. I know coalitions can do amazing things. The failure of coalitions is generally about a flaw in the structure of the coalition. It could be that one partner has too much power or participants haven’t really committed to the process. The thing is, we need coalitions. At their core they are about power. They have always been how those without power keep those with power in check.

            I’m certain and even optimistic that we’ll see more of them moving forward, not less. I’m optimistic because of social media. Social media more than any other technology since the printing press has the power to dramatically change the way we engage, not just in the little things but in huge political, social and cultural revolutions. Social media can make us all a David versus any Goliath and it does it by tapping the power of coalitions. 🙂

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