Step 5: Anticipate the necessary resources
Effective coalitions generally require minimal financial outlay for materials and
supplies, but require substantial time commitments from people. The ability to allocate
considerable staffing is one of the most important considerations for organizations
providing coalition leadership.
Occasionally, the coalition can call upon its members for operational tasks. However,
the lead agency generally provides the majority of staff time. Lead agencies may
benefit by reallocating some of their staff time to coordinate coalition activities,
because their investment is often repaid by the successes achieved by the coalition.
While staff time may be provided by many coalition members, it is important for the
lead agency not to be too optimistic and to allocate a significant amount of its
own staff time to the coalition. Preparation for coalition meetings requires substantial
staff effort. To assure meeting attendance and success, extensive work must be done
prior to the meetings, including agenda preparation and written and phone contact
with the representatives. A coalition succeeds when staffing is adequate to handle
the detail work.
It is important to recognize that coalition members' time is the most valuable contribution
they can make. When this resource is discussed during coalition meetings, commitments
are sometimes made in response to the enthusiasm of the meeting and seem less realistic
when members return to their regular jobs. At other times, coalition members will
fulfill their commitments but may resent the extra work. Both situations can have
a long-term, destructive impact on the coalition. Periodic discussions about resources,
support, and time limitations of the members can minimize potential problems. Also,
it is important to re-evaluate the objectives and activities in order to monitor
which are achievable, given the coalition's staffing and resources, which may change
over time. The more the coalition's objectives complement those of its members' agencies,
the less member time will seem like "extra" work.
TIP: Estimate how much of the footwork will be the responsibility of the lead
agency and how much to expect realistically of members. Anticipate that members will
not always fulfill their commitments. Be appreciative of what is done, rather than
"moralistic" when people cannot accomplish everything they planned.
See Figure E for Staff Demands on the Lead Agency.
Financial resources. Financial concerns can be distracting, particularly to a new
coalition. Although it may be costly to establish and maintain a coalition, particularly
in terms of staff time, the cost of achieving overall results should be less than
if the lead agency attempted to accomplish these same objectives on its own. Frequently,
coalitions spend thousands of dollars of personnel time in order to raise much smaller
amounts of cash. While raising small amounts of money may provide members with a
sense of accomplishment, these efforts must be minimized. Furthermore, careful attention
should be paid to minimizing financial obligations for members. For example, a conference
held at a community site with volunteer speakers may be planned for a nominal cost.
Additionally, five possible sources for supplementing coalition resources, whether
in the form of cash or donated services, are the media, foundations, local service
clubs, students and trainees, and volunteers.
Media can be encouraged to provide information that reinforces coalition efforts.
They also may be interested in printing and disseminating information on the materials
produced by the coalition. A visibility campaign, using mass media (television, radio,
newspaper) will help raise the coalition's profile and may help to promote the coalition
Foundations usually give small amounts of seed money to coalitions because they value
the opportunity to encourage cooperation and see it as a way to provide broad services
at minimal cost.
Local service clubs such as Soroptimists or Rotary like to contribute to broad-based
community efforts. Also, they frequently have established links with some coalition
Students and trainees frequently seek skills in coalition building and may be interested
in a traineeship program. Linkage with a university community college can be a cost
effective way to increase staffing.
Volunteers are often pleased to contribute many resources and are anxious to learn
the skills related to coalition building that will serve their own charitable impulses
Step 6: Define Elements of a Successful Coalition Structure
The technical details of the coalition's structure are vital to achieving success.
As with other coalition considerations, it is important to have well-developed ideas
as well as the flexibility to allow for input and modifications by coalition members.
Structural issues to consider are: a) coalition life expectancy; b) meeting location,
frequency, and length; c) membership parameters; d) decision-making processes; e)
meeting agendas; and f) participation between meetings. There are no set rules about
how a coalition should be structured, but each of the following six elements should
be focused on thoughtfully.
a) Coalition life expectancy. The coalition's goals should dictate its longevity.
Although an open-ended time frame may seem attractive to the lead agency, member
organizations and their representatives often prefer coalitions with a specific life
expectancy. For example, VPC members decided to meet every two months for two years
to establish conflict resolution programs in all local school districts. The disadvantage
of this approach is that some members may become dissatisfied if a decision is made
to maintain the coalition after the specified time. Generally, it is best to meet
two or three times to clarify potential coalition objectives, and then determine
b) Meeting location, frequency, and length. Attention to meeting location(s), time
of day, comfort of the site (size of room, lighting, chairs, ventilation, etc.),
and regularly scheduled dates can all contribute to enhanced member participation.
In addition, a time for refreshments prior to meetings, during breaks, or after the
meeting provides an opportunity for less formal conversation and builds group cohesion
To promote an atmosphere of equal contribution, consider holding coalition meetings
on neutral territory, such as the local library. Rotating the meeting to different
members' sites can add interest, although at times meetings are delayed when people
get lost or confused by varying locations.
Other than an ad hoc emergency situation - such as a legislative deadline - coalitions
should not meet more frequently than once a month. In some cases, attendance levels
are more likely to be maintained by meeting once every two months. When coalitions
meet less frequently, members are generally more willing to participate in subcommittees
between general meetings. However, coalition commitment and continuity can suffer
when meetings occur less than once per month. Groups separated by distance will meet
less frequently (e.g. quarterly). If some members travel a great distance, longer
but less frequent meetings make the travel time a better investment. Certain kinds
of groups meet annually with subcommittee meetings and conference calls in between,
but their effectiveness can suffer unless members are highly motivated.
Remember, people's time is valuable: generally, 1.5 - 2 hour meetings are best. Do
not permit coalition meetings to run over the planned time.
TIP: Poll members to see which times and locations present the least conflict
in terms of both personal and work commitments. Avoid meeting times that cause members
to face traffic jams and sites where parking is difficult. The next time they receive
a notice about a coalition meeting, they should not think of the traffic as much
as the content of the meeting.
c) Membership parameters. As Step 2 points out, membership is critical. Coalition
members must decide to what extent new members will be included. How defined should
the membership be versus how open? In many cases, a compromise solution in which
certain people are recruited and encouraged, but no one is excluded is best. Open
meetings lead to greater variability in attendance and a potentially unwieldy group,
but this is generally of less concern than the danger of excluding, or creating the
impression of excluding, important supporters. For example, conference organizers
who invite only certain, specially selected people to attend may face significant
backlash from others who feel that their participation in the conference would be
A large group can be "layered" so that effectiveness is maximized. For
example, VPC executive directors met separately to discuss policy issues, and task
forces were developed on school curricula and on state legislation, thereby reducing
the number of general meetings.
TIP: New members add vitality to the coalition. Providing an orientation session
for new members often reduces their need to interrupt coalition meetings to "catch
up" with the topics.
Whether a broad cross-section or a more narrowly-defined group of members is chosen,
it is worth analyzing the potential contributions of various disciplines (e.g., churches,
business organizations, local government, school districts, etc.) in relation to
the purpose and goals of the coalition. For example, the VPC initially consisted
of service providers. After the VPC formed, the coalition membership decided to include
church groups, police, women's associations, block associations, and interested citizens.
This expansion better served the coalition's public education and policy goals.
It is important to consider to what extent organizations should be asked to join
and to become "official" members of the coalition. A general rule of thumb
is not to seek official recognition (which typically means official action by the
Board of Directors of a member organization) until the coalition has a clearly defined
purpose or specific activities that would be strongly enhanced by this recognition.
While official approval may add some clout to the coalition, a more loosely-formed
coalition will initially minimize the need for by-laws and formal decision-making
structures, which can prove cumbersome and pose an early barrier to cooperation.
More formalized membership procedures may become an issue when, and if, the coalition
wishes to make public statements or endorse policy measures. Individuals who are
official members (e.g. with their names on the coalition's letterhead) are more likely
to be concerned about making public statements. Although a more deliberate decision-making
process, involving more time, will be required in order to take a stand on an issue,
the resulting statement will have more credibility because it has more supporters.
Official membership works best when the coalition is smaller and the organizations
are represented by "higher-ups" who can make decisions on the spot.
Due to the inter-organizational nature of coalitions, public statements can become
very complicated, particularly those statements that individual members cannot make
without the approval of their Board of Directors. Even when individual members agree
on a statement, the difficulty in obtaining Board approval often impedes the possibility
of making a public statement in a timely manner.
TIP: Sometimes, the positions of the coalition can be kept at "arms length."
For example, a letter may state that the coalition's position represents the opinion
of the majority of participating groups, but does not necessarily reflect the position
of any particular organizational member or group.
d) Decision-making methods. In "Social Policy," S.M. Miller identifies
good decision-making procedures as key to coalition success. He recommends establishing
a specific decision-making process before problems occur. "You cannot count
on stamina..," he writes, "Make clear early in the life of the coalition..how
decisions are going to be made."7 It is important, however, that discussions
on how decisions are made not become a barrier to coalition effectiveness. Sometimes
coalitions become so involved in these kinds of discussions they lose track of their
fundamental purpose. It may be helpful to ask: Is this particular decision-making
structure vital to the functioning of the coalition? Bear in mind that some members
may find lengthy decision-making discussions distracting and, as a result, may decrease
their attendance. Therefore, avoid discussions that are too detailed or cumbersome.
Decisions can be made by consensus. However, this process can become unmanageable.
To avoid this, define consensus as an approach that the majority supports and others
can live with. Health-based coalitions are usually happy to relinquish some of the
detailed decision making in exchange for simplicity and reasonable results. On the
other hand, sensitivity must be exercised, especially on "charged" issues,
such as decisions related to money, policy, and turf. There will be cases in which
consensus cannot be reached and the group must either vote or accept that there will
be no action on a certain issue. Sometimes having the group clarify in advance the
kinds of issues that are charged (e.g., grants, turf, or legislation) will help to
avoid problems later.
TIP: Coalitions often gravitate toward discussing their own internal workings and
processes rather than resolving the community issue they came together to address.
Avoid this "identity crisis." Though some coalition decisions require a
group process to reach "closure," the true purpose of the coalition must
not get lost.
e) Meeting structure. One of the most important ingredients for an effective coalition
is a good meeting agenda. A clear agenda structure, which may be modified by those
present at the beginning of the meeting, can reinforce the coalition's purpose and
foster collaboration. To achieve such positive results, the agenda must be carefully
planned and, ideally, should be distributed prior to the meeting.
A regular agenda format will help the coalition get focused, thereby giving members
a sense of direction and momentum. Different formats will work better for some groups,
but most agendas begin with agenda modification, a review of the previous meetings'
minutes (if minutes are kept), and introductions, "check-ins," or announcements.
Many meetings conclude by evaluating the meeting, setting a date for the next meeting,
and listing items for the next meeting's agenda.
The heart of the agenda will vary between groups depending upon their missions and
the role of members identified in the structure of the coalition. A focus, for instance,
on legislation would require a place on the agenda for updates on policy efforts,
while a group that is concentrating on community outreach and education might have
a section on the agenda for "community action." Large, broad-based coalitions
may have a variety of committees, and therefore a section for committee reports would
be important. Inviting guest speakers or adding presentations by coalition members
can enliven the agenda.
The lead agency, or whoever is responsible for developing the meeting's agenda, needs
to discuss with the meeting facilitator how the agenda should be organized. They
should anticipate which topics could generate controversy, who should lead the discussion
on each item, which items require a decision, how much time should be allotted, and
what would be the best "process" for each item (eg. brainstorm, small group
discussion, refer to committee, report only, etc.).
The agenda that is distributed to members prior to a meeting is often just an outline,
with suggested times for each item. The facilitator will bring an annotated agenda
with notes about who will guide each section, what process will be used, and any
other notes that will ensure that the meeting moves smoothly through the agenda in
the allocated time. For long meetings, or meetings where the agenda is substantially
altered from what was initially distributed, the facilitator may write a revised
agenda on butcher paper taped to the wall. Bringing materials like pens, butcher
paper, audio visual equipment, and tape is generally the lead agency's responsibility,
but these materials may also be provided by staff at the meeting site.
f) Participation between meetings. Successful coalitions generally have active planning
groups or subcommittees, formal and informal, that carry out coalition activities.
Based on time constraints, commitment, and relevance to their organization's own
objectives, different members may show markedly different levels of involvement.
Unless coalition objectives are closely related to the objectives of the membership,
it is not wise to expect more than a few hours of additional commitment between meetings.
Often members have less time available than what is realistically needed to make
a coalition work. Be sensitive to the fact that coalition work is not the main job
of coalition members. Some people volunteer far more than is appropriate both because
of their enthusiasm at the time and because there may be group pressure for everyone
to contribute. Keep reminding people that it is okay to say "no." Remember
that coalition members will not always fulfill their commitments. The more directly
coalition activities are related to the specific objectives of the participating
organizations, the more the coalition will accomplish and flourish.
It may be helpful to encourage the most active participants in the coalition to form
a steering committee, which provides leadership by discussing long-range goals and
the steps and strategies to achieve them. A steering committee often works well as
an informal open body. For example, lunch meetings between coalition sessions can
bring together key participants and allow them to provide their best input while
increasing their buy-in. Members of a steering committee may be selected by the group
as a whole or, in less formal situations, the lead agency may encourage members to
attend the lunch meetings. It is important not to exclude anyone from participation.
Coalitions are not just for fun, but when members enjoy working together, the coalition
can achieve more of its objectives.
One of the main concerns organizations voice when participating in coalitions is
that the coalition utilizes too much staff time, which is at a premium in this era
of cutbacks in health and human services. Hence, the simpler the design of a coalition,
the better. Furthermore, encouraging members to participate in activities of their
own choosing minimizes the possibility of some members overcommitting their time
and burning out.
In all areas of coalition "anatomy," the same rules apply: minimize complications,
maximize relevance, and encourage participation.
A FINAL TIP: Nothing is better for coalition morale than healthy refreshments!
Step 7: Maintain Coalition Vitality
Coalition building is a craft, requiring broad vision and careful attention to detail.
Leadership in coalition building requires knowing not only how to create a coalition
structure, but also how to recognize the warning signs of problems that may arise.
The ability of coalition leaders to do both will greatly increase the coalition's
chances for success. It is important for leaders to work hard at maintaining the
vitality and enthusiasm of the coalition.
Warning signs may be difficult to recognize because even the most successful coalition
has ebbs and flows. By dealing with potential problems as they emerge, however, the
vitality of the coalition can be maintained. For example, at the June VPC meeting,
a member noticed that attendance had decreased again. In fact, two subcommittees
had no reports because hardly anyone had attended the meetings. The member said that
he was too worried about his agency's budget to do anything to help solve the attendance
problem. VPC members were not able to fix this fundamental problem, but did discuss
it and decided to reduce coalition objectives and lengthen the coalition's timeline.
In addition, the VPC sent a letter to the Board of Supervisors decrying the negative
impact of the budget cuts and asking the Board to reinstate funds to the agencies.
In addition, the VPC focused its summer meeting specifically on a budget forum and
postponed subcommittee meetings to conserve member time and resources.
TIP: A group attempting to coordinate services or embark on a joint advocacy effort
should expect more pitfalls than a group formed solely for the purpose of information
sharing, as the former tasks are more complex and demand more commitment.
Several activities that are important for maximizing coalition vitality are described
below. These include: noting and addressing coalition difficulties; sharing power
and leadership; recruiting and involving new members; promoting renewal by providing
training and by bringing challenging, exciting new issues to the group; and celebrating
and sharing successes.
Addressing coalition difficulties. One clear indication that a coalition is having
difficulties is a decline in coalition membership. While earlier warning signs are
less obvious, they might show up as: repetitious meetings or meetings which consist
primarily of announcements and reports; meetings which become bogged down in procedures;
significant failures in follow-through; ongoing challenges of authority and/or battles
between members; lack of member enthusiasm; or an unacceptable drain on lead agency
resources as a result of attempts to bolster the coalition.
"Coalition artists" must watch for warning signs, be aware of the conditions
that can have a negative impact on coalition effectiveness, and constantly work to
minimize the difficulties. The most common difficulties include: 1) poor group dynamics,
including unnecessarily draining decision making and "power dynamics,"
such as tension over leadership, decisions, or turf; 2) membership/participation
concerns such as a difficult agency or member, changes in the needs of participating
agencies, shifts in staff assignments, changes in available resources, or member
burnout; 3) coalition emphasis on too many long-term goals without short-term objectives
to generate short-term wins that add energy to the group; 4) ineffectiveness in achieving
coalition activities due to inadequate planning or resources; or 5) changes affecting
the coalition's mission, such as new legislation that has an impact on the objective
reality of the issue the coalition was formed to address.
Although the lead agency will not always be able to overcome these challenges, effective
management of the problem is an essential first step. The lead agency should identify
and respond to significant problems, issues, or changes that appear to impede the
coalition. It is the lead agency's responsibility to bring identified problems to
the attention of coalition members and to encourage collaborative solutions. The
most valuable source of information about negative coalition conditions is input
from the coalition members themselves. Therefore, it is crucial to maintain open
communication among the members so that problems surface quickly. Furthermore, it
is important to be flexible regarding how objectives will be met.
Sharing the power and leadership. Many coalition members will readily defer power
to the lead agency in order to facilitate smooth functioning. However, if the coalition
solidifies as an independent entity and develops a body of work that it performs
or creates collectively, members will expect greater involvement in decision-making.
It is at this point that the coalition becomes a more independent group and requires
less guidance from the lead agency.
Ironically, the characteristics which indicate a strong coalition - a heightened
sense of collective identity and a high degree of interest in, and commitment to,
work which is developed collaboratively - can also exacerbate tensions in defining
the direction of the coalition. It is important to deal with these issues directly.
Negotiating issues of a power imbalance in decision-making, especially when a coalition
has achieved this state of maturity, requires sensitivity and may require setting
aside extra time to clarify.
Recruiting and involving new members. Membership changes are to be expected. Sometimes
an organization's mandate will change; other times staff members simply have personal
interests and priorities that draw them away from the coalition. It is worthwhile
to develop new leadership and support periodically. Distributing coalition minutes
and information widely outside the coalition is one way to inform a broad group of
potential members. Attention must be paid to ensure that new members are welcomed
and oriented to fulfill vital functions on the coalition. They will add new energy
and enthusiasm to the coalition's ongoing activities. It is important to attend to
the ways that the coalition can be inclusive, as many people leave coalitions after
one or two meetings because they feel that they have nothing special to offer. An
invitation to join a sub-committee can be helpful.
Promoting renewal by providing training and by bringing challenging, exciting new
issues to the group. Coalition building and injury prevention each require their
own set of skills, and some members will be more experienced than others. Every member
will bring to the coalition his or her own perspective. Therefore, a broad framework,
a common vocabulary, and a set of principles for preventing injury must be presented
early on in the coalition's formation. Remember, too, that new members will need
to be brought up to speed. Further training, encouraging coalition members to attend
conferences, and bringing in guest speakers can be helpful. This approach will ensure
that members share the big picture of the problem as well as the underlying philosophy
of the coalition. Everyone involved in the coalition, both lead agency staff and
members, can and will benefit from training, consultation, and the opportunity to
discuss what is and is not working.
Coalition work is frustrating and exhausting at times. Therefore, retreats, trainings,
opportunities to discuss coalition building with others, and recognition of lead
agency staff are all essential in preventing burnout. Recognizing that lead agency
staff are a critical resource required for coalition effectiveness, it is important
to provide them with support and encouragement. Lead agency staff and coalition members
need exposure to new information on their chosen issue in order to stimulate creative
ideas and to reinvigorate coalition efforts.
Celebrating and sharing successes. Maintaining morale and a sense that the coalition
is playing a vital role in addressing the problem is essential. Too often, coalitions
focus on problems and next steps without pausing to appreciate their accomplishments.
Keys to boosting coalition morale include implementing effective activities that
result in tangible products, giving coalition members credit for coalition successes,
celebrating short-term successes with publicity or awards, re-examining objectives,
and taking a brief respite from coalition meetings and activities.
Next: Appendix B. Developing
Effective Coalitions: An Eight Step Guide (continued)