Coalitions are like boyfriends. Some don’t last long while others are pure magic. Sometimes you leave them, other times they leave you. Sometimes you get great things done together and then conscientiously uncouple like Gwyneth and Chris, while other times you leave a coalition in a NYC hotel room on his 40th birthday because he’s being a total jerk.
There’s strength in numbers, so you should constantly find new ways to develop and strengthen relationships with other organizations. By identifying, contacting and forging partnerships with other organizations your campaign will broaden its perspective, enhance its credibility, expand its resources, and out-organize the opposition. For an outstanding read on successful coalition-building, read Michael Pertschuk’s book The DeMarco Factor, about Baltimore-based organizer Vinny DeMarco, on whom I have a serious organizer crush. It contains Vinny’s secrets to success around the country. Read it if you want to win.
Jim Shultz, author of The Democracy Owners’ Manual, calls coalition-building “an unnatural act between partially consenting adults with the lights on.” In practice, coalitions can take many different forms – from a very informal network, to an ad hoc group of organizations brought together for a specific, time-limited purpose, to more formal coalitions with a name, letterhead, and so on, and then on to permanent coalitions, with bylaws, dues, and other written agreements governing how they’ll function.
So why build a coalition? Tip O’Neill, the Massachusetts politician and long-time Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, once observed that, “Power is the appearance of power.” Coalitions represent large numbers of people; as such, they can provide that crucial appearance of power. Coalitions can also bring much-needed credibility and efficiency to organizing efforts.
Credibility—The more diverse a coalition is, the more legitimacy it has. Many coalitions exist mostly on paper and are comprised of organizations that work on very similar issues, but those are not the coalitions best suited to take on well-funded, powerful opponents. Environmental groups getting together to sign a letter is nice, but an environmental group joined by a sporting association, business owners and a church is better. In politics, strange bedfellows can be a powerful demonstration of the breadth of support for an issue.
Efficiency—Don’t waste your time recruiting your own individual members and forming new relationships when you can use other groups’ members and relationships. Pooling resources with other organizations is a smart move.
Determine whether forming a coalition will help you achieve your goals. Be sure a coalition makes sense at that particular point in your campaign. If the benefits outweigh the risks and you do decide to form a coalition, the right time to build it is about a year in advance. Shortly before your battle is not the best time to form a coalition. As the saying goes, you have to learn to walk before you can run, so working together in advance of a major fight yields better results.
Want to know more about the care and feeding of coalitions and what they can do for you? Download Power Up & Amplify, my free 6-page guide to coalitions, here. The guide covers
- What groups to recruit
- Where to begin
- Who should attend your meetings
- What coalitions do
- How long coalitions should last
- How to pick a good coalition name
- Attracting diverse coalition partners
- Leadership & structure of coalitions
- Y más!
P.S. If you haven’t already downloaded these free guides, you can get them at the links below. If you can think of other tools that would be helpful, please let me know.
One of the biggest challenges organizations have is the campaign planning process. To help serve them, I’ve created a guide of the 11 essential points that I use with organizations, as well as with my grad students at Johns Hopkins. In it you’ll find the critical elements your campaign must have. Use this as an easy reference guide for staff, volunteers & trainers.
- The 10 steps of power mapping
- The questions to ask and where to find answers
- Easy reference guide for staff, volunteers & trainers