Coalition Building Guide

by Martín Diego Garcia (He/Him)

Guide to Coalition Building

How to Use Coalition Building to Make an Impact 

If you’re a member of an organization that has spotted a need for change but doesn’t know how to make a meaningful impact alone, coalition building may be the answer for you. Though you may know the change you want to make, the hardest part is figuring out how to get started. Do you have enough resources, money and otherwise, to make this happen? Are there people out there who also care about the cause, and is there anyone who might be inclined to work against you? How will you reach all the right people within a given timeline? These things can be difficult to tackle alone, and that’s why coalition building can be extremely helpful.

What is a coalition?

A coalition is a formalized alliance of interested parties joining together for a specific cause or change to achieve a mutually desired outcome that they may not have been able to accomplish on their own. Coalitions for ballot measures and advocacy campaigns are made up of a variety of individuals, groups, and organizations aligning themselves in support of or in opposition to a specific initiative or cause. These groups can include grassroots organizations, community leaders, impacted people, consultants, legal entities, national organizations, and many more. These groups come together for a single initiative or a series of them that may appear on the ballot at the local, state, or national level.

Why should I build a coalition? 

As a progressive organization, you may want to effect change but lack the time, money, or political power to accomplish this on your own. But odds are, you aren’t the only stakeholder, and other organizations want to achieve the same outcome as you. Coalition building allows you and other organizations to pool resources. Working together, groups can accomplish much more than each could alone. Coalitions allow groups to broaden their network, achieve more power, build credibility, pool and conserve resources, and share information (strategies, experiences, connections, etc.). 

In addition to that, we all know that relationships are key to organizing and making change. The more trust you’re able to build with allied groups and organizations, the more likely they will be to join up with you on the next effort. If your organization is also playing the long game, then coalition building is definitely for you because it will allow you to continually build upon and increase your access to resources to ultimately help you increase your impact and achieve your larger mission and goals.

Who should I include in my coalition? 

When coalition building, there will almost always be some obvious groups that have similar interests to you that you can join forces with. Teaming up with peer organizations that are doing similar work to you is a natural way to build a coalition. They will have deep subject matter expertise and a network of supporters who have already bought into the task at hand. Putting aside the small differences or potential competitive feelings between similar organizations can lead to big change.

An interesting and sometimes more impactful way to build coalitions is to involve organizations with a less obvious stake in the issue at hand. Building creative coalitions broadens the scope of expertise available to you and shows more widespread support for the issue. The key to coalition building is to recruit unexpected supporters in a way that still makes sense and reinforces the message of your campaign. For example, perhaps you belong to an environmental organization that is pursuing a change to local zoning laws for health and safety reasons. You will naturally reach out to any other environmental groups working in the area, but who else might have an interest in promoting the community’s health and safety? Are there parent groups who could join you? Medical professional associations? A consistent message coming from a diverse range of organizations strengthens your campaign.

You will also want to think about who is doing what AND what needs to get done. Do you have the skills within your coalition to implement the strategy and plan? For example, your organization might have a large grassroots membership that you can activate for field tactics, but you need a coalition member to help run a strong digital program and another coalition member to help with a traditional press plan. This way you all know your lanes but are pooling skills and resource to create a larger impact. 

What is the key to a successful coalition?

Coalition building is not an easy feat. Though everyone may be united behind a single issue or cause, if you’ve built a large and diverse coalition, it will not always be easy to organize the many different parties and their voices. It is important to stay focused on the common goal. All actors must be open to differing ideas and tactics and be willing to compromise. Don’t get in your own way. If responsibilities, goals, decisions, and leadership roles are shared respectfully, a coalition can be incredibly powerful. 

Remember that each of the coalition members has a personal vested interest in joining the coalition and may also be working on other efforts where you may not align. However, if you’re able to build trust through transparency, then you will be able to work alongside one another on your shared efforts in a way that mutually benefits all parties.

What are best practices for building a coalition? 

Once you’ve decided who will be a part of your coalition, the next step is figuring out the best way to organize all parties in the most efficient and effective way. Below are three easy tips that any well-run coalition should follow. 

Agree to measurable goals

Like any campaign, all people involved should have a clear understanding of what the goals are, how they will be measured, and what their role is in achieving those goals. To start, this can be laid out by creating a memorandum of understanding (MOU) that all coalition members agree to. The MOU should at the very least clearly lay out what each partner is contributing to the coalition, who will be receiving any assets at the end of the campaign, and, most importantly, who will receive the data collected.

Goals can also be included in the strategic campaign plan. Have clear and measurable goals for everyone involved in the coalition. For example, how many signatures will be gathered and by whom, how much money will be raised and by whom, how many voters will be engaged and by whom, how many press pitches will be made and by whom? All of these specific goals will help coalition members understand who is doing what and allow for progress to be tracked.

Delegate the work

Often the individual or convener of the coalition takes on all the work of the coalition, which is not useful or effective—it defeats the purpose of having a coalition. As you’re writing a campaign plan, note the types of roles and activities that are needed. This exercise will foster a better understanding of the types of partners needed in the coalition. Is there a need for boots on the ground and does that mean you need a robust grassroots organization? Do you want to change public opinion or raise public awareness, necessitating a partner with a robust communications team? Who is responsible for the research, polling, and legal review? All of these questions will help you seek out the most effective partners for your coalition.

Center those most impacted

The last thing to remember is that most coalitions are created to address an issue that will impact certain people and communities. Therefore, it is critical to make those impacted people central to all the decisions made by the coalition. These are the stories, experiences, and ultimately lives that are most important in any campaign. Ensure their voices are represented and given decision-making power within your coalitions. If not for them, then why is the coalition forming at all?

Have more questions about coalition building or how to manage an effective coalition? Don’t hesitate to drop us a line