If you have ever caught yourself thinking, “This would be faster and easier if I did it myself!” you’ve probably endured the growing pains of coalition development, organizing and management — or have struggled through at least one group project in high school. The truth is, building and managing effective coalitions is hard work, but the gains are worth it.
I come to Mission Partners with a background in environmental justice organizing across the U.S. South, which means I’ve worked in my fair share of coalitions in pursuit of climate solutions, forest protection, clean energy, and a just transition for communities. From community-based networks led by local leaders to national coalitions with a variety of stakeholders, they all come with joys and challenges. Experiencing both inaction and rapid progress, sharing campaign victories and losses, and navigating communication breakdowns and major breakthroughs — these are just a few of the dichotomies that are common to working in coalitions.
Here are four tips on how to be a more effective coalition convener and partner, and why meaningful teamwork is so necessary to achieving your goals.
If we are to tackle the most complex, interconnected, and urgent problems, we have to work together. Effective coalitions help us maximize our capacity, tap into shared wisdom and expertise, and reach new audiences. Further, the structural racism and injustice that underwrite the issues that we face as a society — from a public health crisis, to economic inequities, to the climate emergency — require us to address these problems at their root to achieve long-lasting, systemic change. That means getting out of our silos, sharing resources and power with others, and drawing upon diverse perspectives to make progress.
Whether we’re innovating to solve a problem, engaging with and embracing new funding models, or demonstrating our collective power, organizing in coalitions helps us to strengthen our shared movement for a just and equitable future for all.
Strong coalitions are built on trust and relationships. An intentional, people-centered approach to coalition management will help root the group’s processes, communications and outcomes in accountability and empathy. Coalitions are made up of organizations, and organizations are made up of people. It sounds obvious, but too often coalition participants breeze past the time and work it takes to cultivate meaningful relationships, and later discover they lack the trust necessary to overcome obstacles together.
Coalition work requires navigating disagreements, sharing resources and power, and challenging our own perspectives — all of which can be scary, if not impossible, to do without mutual trust and understanding. That’s why we encourage new and existing coalitions to spend time up front setting norms, articulating what brings each person to the table, and agreeing upon shared goals and priorities. Personal check-ins at the start of coalition meetings, such as sharing good news or other updates, will also center the space around the people and provide opportunities for partners to get to know one another.
Clear and effective project management. Within your organization, you hopefully have a clearly defined role and set of responsibilities. But what about within your coalition? If you’ve ended a meeting with a list of vague action items and seen the next week pass with no movement or communication, you’re not alone. From discrete tasks like note-taking at a meeting, to co-creating and reviewing content, to activating the many components of a plan, agreeing upon clear roles with defined timelines will help hold individuals and the group at large accountable and in action.
At Mission Partners, we use the Management Center’s MOCHA model to drive our work forward with accountability and clarity, and we include clients and coalition members into that management structure at the outset of a project. Manager, Owner, Consultant, Helper, Approver — every member of our team plays different, but clearly assigned, roles across projects. In a coalition setting, for example, you might be an “owner” in leading the development and distribution of a shared press release, but you might be a “consultant” in reviewing a social media toolkit. For best results, be sure that project components have a sole owner so tasks don’t fall through the cracks, think through all the approvers who need to have eyes on a deliverable before it goes public (like board members and executive leadership), and create clear timelines that include periods for review.
Challenge your perspectives. What makes our coalitions and our communities strong is the diversity of experiences, expertise, and ideas that helps us see problems in a different light and uncover new solutions. Honoring that diversity means recognizing that there is not “only one right way” to achieve our shared vision; the most effective coalitions will expose themselves to new approaches through deeply listening to one another. Courageous and honest communication in coalition spaces requires a willingness to dig into discussion and an openness to compromise and try someone else’s way. In serving a commitment to race equity and dismantling white supremacy, pay particular attention to the dominant voices in the room and if there is a consistent approach that always wins out.
When you’re feeling stuck or attached to the way you’ve always done it, ask yourself these questions:
- What would happen if I let go here and follow a partner’s lead?
- What’s holding me back from seeing this in a different way?
- How can I learn from the way that others approach this work differently?
Finally, there is growth in discomfort. One of the common challenges we hear when it comes to coalition management boils down to navigating internal disagreements. Too often, we see conflict painted with a broad brush, looking at any and all disagreement as a threat instead of an opportunity. The truth is, the most energizing, impactful, and downright juiciest gains come from leaning into discomfort.
If you’ve meaningfully followed the steps of building relationships, cultivating mutual respect and understanding, and leading with accountability and empathy, then you can stand on a foundation of trust as you courageously navigate what might feel like an uncomfortable and sticky situation. By committing to deep listening, challenging our own perspectives and biases, and opening ourselves to alternative pathways, we can look at conflict not with fear, but with love — and move forward, together.
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