Coalitions are an invaluable tool in legislative campaigns. A coalition is a group of organizations or interested parties working together for a common goal. In today’s political climate, where public policymakers are lobbied from all sides on innumerable issues by hundreds of different interest groups, they have become necessary to effective advocacy. Nowadays, organizations seldom act in isolation from like-minded groups. A strong coalition increases the likelihood that lawmakers will support your position. Coalitions demonstrate broad-based support for your legislative goal. They also enhance credibility and legitimacy when diverse interests unite for a common cause. Since politicians have to choose among competing interests, the greater and more varied your allies, the easier and more comfortable it is for legislators to make a decision in your favor.
Types of Coalitions
Coalitions vary in form and purpose. They can be permanent or temporary; single issue or multi-issue; geographically defined; limited to certain constituencies (e.g., a coalition of patient groups); or some combination of all these types (e.g., a Midwestern coalition of farm organizations seeking a new farm subsidy).
A loose, informal coalition usually meets regularly to exchange information and coordinate activities on a common issue; the member groups maintain their own autonomy; and generally the coalition only acts together when all groups agree.
An organized, informal coalition generally has a name, a loose set of goals, a formalized meeting structure, and a mechanism for making group decisions; and resources and staffing are usually provided in member organizations.
A formal coalition has its own identity and autonomy to act on behalf of member organizations and usually has an articulated mission statement and goals, a governance structure and independent funds, resources and staff.
Guidelines for Successful Coalitions
- Clear purpose: all organizations should agree to an articulated common goal. Be clear about what you want to accomplish and identify your bottom line.
- Agree to disagree: seldom do all organizations agree on all issues. Focus on your common agenda. If there are fundamental disagreements, then working together may not be possible.
- Respect all members’ autonomy and integrity: understand that each member’s organization has its own history, leadership, culture, agenda, structure and decision-making process.
- Recognize that contributions vary: each group contributes different things to the coalition (e.g., money, research, expertise, image, grassroots members or volunteers, lobbyists, staff time, name recognition, and access to political leaders).
- Observe institutional self-interest: show how the coalition can help groups’ effectiveness, organizational development, recruitment, media exposure, access to important officials, etc.
- Share responsibility and credit: an organization’s ability to raise money, recruit members, build power, attract staff, develop leaders and fulfill its mission often depends on the amount of public credit it receives, particularly in the media.
- Clear decision-making structure: determine the process by which groups may be part of the leadership. Determine the responsibilities of membership. Be explicit about whether decisions are made by majority or consensus.
- Tactics must suit all groups: when developing tactics, find similarities and play to the middle. At certain points, the coalition’s strategy may be to encourage certain members to act independently and in their own names, utilizing more militant tactics – but with the consent of all coalition partners. This may make the coalition seem more reasonable.
- Consider staff: it’s important to have a politically savvy person who is primarily responsible for working for the whole coalition. If a staff person is contributed rather than hired from the outside, it is important that the person to make every effort to be impartial.
Organizations do not have to join every coalition. Avoid becoming involved in coalitions whose members are not respected in your community – this can have a negative impact on the legitimacy of your own organization in the eyes of elected officials and the public.
If you do join a coalition, choose what resources your group wants to contribute. Before joining, an organization should consider:
- Who is the driving force behind the formation of the coalition?
- What does your group expect in exchange for its participation?
- Will coalition tactics and activities be designed so that your members or volunteers can and will want to participate?
- How will participation in the coalition build your organization?
Coalition building is a process that occurs over time. Coalitions are forged through trust, shared goals and hard work. Here are some guidelines and techniques for forming a coalition:
- Identify potential allies: develop a list of parties that might be interested in working on a common issue. How the issue is framed often determines what groups will join the coalition.
- Reach out to diverse constituencies: consider the issue from different angles and calculate who will be affected. This should help you reach beyond natural allies to those that might be considered “nontraditional allies” or “strange bedfellows.”
- Research decisionmakers’ ties: research and reach out to the organizations to which elected officials belong, if appropriate.
- Build relationships with coalition partners: in approaching potential allies, go to other groups’ meetings; set up meetings with another group’s leadership; invite other groups to make presentations to your group; share information; and discuss how the coalition can benefit their group.
- Choose a strong leader: it is often difficult to hold a coalition together through the politics of compromises and trade-offs. Good management may prevent members from quickly dropping out when their specific interests are negotiated away, and will keep members informed and involved in planning and activities.
- A sign-on letter is an effective way to begin building a coalition. Whether it is a statement of principles or a call to action, a sign-on letter helps to ensure buy-in from your allies and provides a basic document upon which you all agree. Once groups have joined a sign-on letter, they feel more vested in a project and it can be a foundation for more significant participation.