There are two critical elements that make or break a coalition, its membership and its management. In order to be effective, coalition members must share a common vision and work compatibly as partners. Coalitions need to be closely managed so that the collective knowledge, power and resources represented by its members can be used effectively.
Generally there are two types of coalitions, short-term coalitions and long-term coalitions. Short-term coalitions are usually singularly focused on a particular issue, election or event. Long-term coalitions have the flexibility to become involved in a wider array of issues and activities.
The process of forming a coalition begins by reaching out to others who might share your interest in the issue. The rest of the process is as follows:
1) Identify potential members.
2) Consider the expertise, services and reputation of each organization. Find out more about each organization’s experience, membership, internal resources, community influence, and access to policymakers and the media.
3) Recruit organizations for the coalition. Coalitions benefit when a broad spectrum of organizations are invited to participate. It is important to recognize the range of contributions that each can make to the coalition. As a matter of practicality, it helps to recruit organizations with the greatest capacity to contribute first, so that they can assist in recruiting others. The most experienced members of the planning group can be assigned to approach the leaders of each prospective organization personally. They can stress the need for the coalition and benefits of membership in a way that appeals to the interests of the organization and its members. This contact can be followed by a formal, mailed invitation to an initial meeting. A coalition’s membership should never permanently be closed.
4) Hold an introductory meeting of interested organizations. Coalition members need to become acquainted. Invite each representative to briefly describe her/his organization’s mission, history, accomplishments and areas of interest.
5) Determine the coalition’s structure and focus. At the next meeting, the management and mission of the coalition can be discussed. The mission need not necessarily be directly related to one issue. It may reflect broader concerns that affect each member organization and the community at large.
6) Select a board of directors/steering committee. A board is the decision-making body of a coalition. Ideally, it should include representation from different member organizations. The board is responsible for presenting a preliminary plan to the entire membership. Through this first step, members learn how to function as a coalition and build on each other’s strengths. Regularly scheduled meetings are ideal, but not always practical. Much can be accomplished by phone, conference call, fax, and email.
7) Appoint a chair. The chairperson is responsible for overseeing the coalition’s financial, strategic and programming activities, and determining the agenda for and leading steering committee meetings. The position should carry a 2-year term for continuity.
8) Draft a plan. Led by the chair, the board can write and formally adopt a plan, which communicates, in measurable terms, what the coalition hopes to accomplish over a specific period of time. Any subsequent changes can be agreed on through a vote. The plan should include a mission statement, long and short-term goals, activities for implementation, and a schedule for implementation.
9) Determine responsibilities for each functional area of the coalition. Keep in mind that coalition members will often participate at different levels. Expect that some will assume leadership roles, while others will act as members in name only. It is helpful to set up working groups for each major area (e.g., fundraising, lobbying, press relations).
10) Identify staff.
11) Establish a communication system. Coalition members need to communicate with one another on a regular basis.
12) Determine the budget. Minimally, start-up funds are needed to cover staffing, coordination and communication.
13) Develop a funding plan. The funding plan and all funding decisions should incorporate input from all members to avoid turf battles and maximize the contacts and expertise of each company.
14) Publicly launch the coalition. A press conference is an ideal way to announce the formation of a coalition. Check with members to identify specific media contacts who may pay special attention to the announcement. Familiarize the entire media community with the coalition, its members, and mission. Position it as a central resource for information and action. Specify what the public and policymakers can expect over time.