Thinking of Joining or Forming a Coalition? Ask Yourself These 9 Questions First
“Diplomacy without an army is like music without instruments,” mused Frederick the Great. But he could also have been speaking about present day grassroots building.
It’s always better to negotiate from a position of strength, with the physical resources necessary to affect the policymaking process, and grassroots advocacy is largely about amassing an army of advocates that harmoniously echo the sentiments of your organization.
That can be a challenge on your own, and coalitions offer a great way to amass strength in numbers fast. Here’s how to fast track your coalition for success.
1. What Exactly Are They?
Basically, coalitions are a group of organizations unified under a temporary alliance to spur political action, using shared resources.
They can be as simple as two distinct groups coming together under a common purpose, or a multi-group conglomerate of organizations spread across the political spectrum that include nonprofits, trade or member associations, and corporate entities.
Some of the most successful coalitions consist of eclectic groups across different issue areas that coalesce around a specific policy initiative, and work in unison around shared goals and objectives.
Good Examples Include:
Reforming America’s Taxes Equitably or RATE represent 35 member companies and organizations and 30 million employees in all 50 states that joined forces to encourage tax reform and reducing the corporate income tax rate.
The coalition includes political powerhouses from Nike to Northrop Grumman to Walmart and Walt Disney. Each of these organizations has considerable political capital alone, but when dealing with difficult issues like corporate tax reform, the diversity of the members multiples their effectiveness.
The Foundation for Alcohol Responsibility, with eight competing drinks companies onboard, among others.
The Data Transparency Coalition, which is so big it has six different membership classes.
The Coalition for Public Safety, the largest national combined effort at reforming the criminal justice system.
2. Isn’t My Own Army Big Enough?
Sometimes you have a grassroots army, but they’re not equipped with the messaging, or the financial resources needed to launch campaigns in the media, or on the ground.
How can you tell? Ask yourself these five questions:
- Do we lack the grassroots manpower to defeat opposing forces from competing associations or corporations?
- Are our advocates’ voices being heard?
- Are our advocates even willing to take action?
- Is our message getting out to the people who need to hear it?
- Are we trying to unsuccessfully reach people beyond your membership?
Forming a coalition can fill those gaps in an advocacy program and bolster your efforts by aligning your organization with allies with similar policy interests.
3. How Do I Know When I Need a Coalition?
- If you could achieve more success with the assistance of like-minded groups that share a similar goal, you’re a prime candidate for a coalition.
- You want to prevent duplicative action by similar groups, and to create an atmosphere that provides peer support and facilitates the exchange of information, skills, and resources.
- You’ve reached an advocacy roadblock with a specific policy.
- You want to research groups that might be affected by a specific policy and motivate them to take action alongside your organization. The rationale for holding a specific policy position might be vastly different, but as long as the mission is the same, a coalition may be a possible solution to the policy impasse.
A good example of this is the Plastic Pollution Coalition, which includes 400 groups ranging from the Breast Cancer Fund to the Environmental Working Group. Combined they were able to pass a Microbead plastic ban in California during the 2015 session, after the ban initially failed in the State Senate in early 2015, and before in 2014.
The coalition was a necessary vehicle for legislation that faced lobbying opposition from the cosmetics industry.
4. Who Should I Pick for My Coalition?
Finding the first follower or member is critical. When you have one organization join your cause it’s easier to leverage other groups to become part of the movement. There are three points to remember:
- Approach organizations that have skills, experience, or resources your organization lacks.
- If you are a membership association and have a grassroots army but no budget, a corporation or trade association might your best bet to provide financial resources necessary to conduct effective campaigns that leverage your grassroots army and vice versa.
- Seek organizations that have a track record of working well on other varied coalitions across different issue areas. They’ll be able to assist in your recruitment efforts of other organizations after joining your coalition.
- Pick participants that will take the coalition’s work seriously, attend routine meetings/conference calls, offer new and innovative ideas, and follow through with actions on behalf of the coalition, and even sacrifice credit claiming for their organization. There are organizations in a lot of coalitions that simply want to put their logo on advertisements and the coalition’s website without actively participating or contributing to the mission. It might be nice to have a certain group on paper, but you should strive to recruit organizations that will participate beyond lending their logo.
- Don’t be afraid to gauge interest while networking. Mike Fulton, Director of Public Affairs at the Asher Agency says that he was recruited to the Perkins CTE Coalition, on behalf of a client, at an Education Panel. He notes, “Networking and conducting outreach keeps all of us advocates connected to new relationships and opportunities, and that is how I learned about the Perkins CTE Coalition.”
Ask these 5 questions when you’re considering your coalition members:
- Are they complementary to your organization
- Do they possess a track record of coalition work
- Have they the ability to recruit new members
- Will they bring specific skills or resources to the coalition
- Are they going to actively participate
5. Why Do I Need to Approach Coalition Members From Different Groups?
Here’s a good example:
The American Motorcyclist Association was helping a regional off-road motorcycle group gain access to ride in Enduro events in New Jersey. Motorcyclists alone were not able to influence legislators and regulators in the state, so I approached the National Volunteer Fire Council to write a joint letter with their state affiliate and our regional affiliate to promote riding access.
The volunteer firefighters may not have been motorcycle enthusiasts, but after our research we determined that they were the beneficiaries of charitable contributions raised at Enduro events, and these funds even purchased fire trucks and other essential equipment. It was a lot a harder for policymakers to shut the door on motorcyclists and firefighters, than just motorcyclists alone.
6. How Do You Avoid Differences?
You won’t entirely, but you can stick to what unites you and not worry about what divides you.
I participated in the Smarter Fuel Future coalition that formed to reform the Renewable Fuel Standard. The coalition consists of consumer and taxpayer advocates, environmentalists, conservationists, oil refiners, food producers, boat owners, anti-hunger activists, and motor equipment enthusiasts.
This coalition represents many diverse interests and organizations that disagree on a lot of issues outside of the Renewable Fuel Standard, and on solutions and reasons for reforming the RFS. However, they’re united in creating public awareness campaigns and don’t not harp on their differences.
On the other side of the issue, the coalition Fuels America exists to protect the RFS, and promote the benefits of renewable fuel. They’re also a diverse coalition of agricultural groups, energy security organizations, and entrepreneurs and investors that are committed to the RFS.
Both coalitions have a diverse membership, but are unified in supporting their respective policy initiatives and collectively work to spur political action towards their individual goals.
7. How Do I Deal With Multiple Different Agendas?
Conflict and differing agendas and opinions are commonplace in coalitions, and can’t be entirely eliminated, but they can be mitigated or controlled by setting up a defined coalition structure.
When forming your coalition put these measures in place to promote cohesion and consistency:
- Designate a representative from each organization to routinely attend meetings, briefings, and other events to report back.
- Host in-person meetings that offer time to network and connect on a personal level. It’s harder to dig your heels in completely with people you like and know personally.
- Host a kick-off happy hour or social event to garner enthusiasm
- Consider hiring an outside facilitator to run the meetings and coordinate schedules and coalition activities such as a public affairs firm.
- Develop a content calendar
- Provide channels for routine and open communication
- Formalize documents that outline priorities and procedure for handling grievances
- Be open and willing to compromise
8. How Do I Figure Out Who Does What?
You’ll quickly get a general idea after a few meetings and getting to know the other coalition member organizations what their capacity is and what roles each member will take.
To begin you can gather an inventory of the shared resources the coalition has, and get a grasp on what all of the organizations can offer it before the labor is divided.
Each individual organization should contribute to the coalition realistically, with the understanding they’ll most likely have many other issues in their portfolio to stretch scarce resources.
Get each organization to play to their strengths. While working for the American Motorcyclist Association, we could bring the grassroots muscle of 300,000 active supporters that were engaged on the RFS issue to the Smarter Fuel Future Coalition.
9. The Metrics: How Do I Measure Success?
Outside of the obvious, your legislation or regulation passes, or doesn’t, your coalition can measure some key statistics to indicate success. These are very similar to metrics tracked by any advocacy program and will include:
- Number of communications sent to decision makers
- The reach of earned and paid media
- How many advocates were recruited
- How many new coalition members did you acquire
- Public hearings or events on the policy issue
- Meetings with legislators, regulators, or staff
Don’t forget to promote good metrics within your own organization and to your coalition advocates. Here’s an example of what your metrics might look like:
During the EPA’s public comment period on the RFS in 2015, the American Motorcyclist Association participated in a grassroots advocacy campaign encouraging reform. The metrics displayed in the following graphic are examples of actual metrics that benefited the Smarter Fuel Future Coalition’s work.
Joshua Habursky is the Chair of the Grassroots Professional Network and Senior Manager of Grassroots Advocacy at the American Diabetes Association. Joshua is also an Adjunct Professor at the Reed College of Media at West Virginia University.
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