Effective Nonprofit Coalitions Build upon Mutual Understanding
By Claudia Lach

Claudia Lach
Claudia Lach
Coalitions provide a clear strategy for many nonprofits to maximize the impact of their work, but they can be political jungles if the parties involved don't prepare adequately.

By joining forces to perform certain tasks with other groups that share similar missions, nonprofit organizations can take a more comprehensive approach to solving the issues they address. Coalitions can be formed with groups that bring different skills, offer different services, and work with different constituents while understanding that they all share a very specific goal. Their temporary union offers an opportunity to gain more influence and power to achieve desired goals.

At the same time, coalitions can become a quagmire, if, for example, members have competing agendas and are fighting for the same resources and recognition. Also, interpersonal conflict can dismantle entire groups.

Establishing and maintaining an effective coalition requires special steps:
  1. Invest in initial planning. Identify the purpose of the coalition. Have a clear why for the group. How does coalition work support the members’ missions? What are its benefits to the member groups? Invite members that are committed to the purpose, bring specific skills and/or attributes that complement others and are willing to share the work.

  2. Have a clear and common goal from the very beginning. Reach a collective agreement on the vision, purpose and goal of the group. Skipping this step can have serious consequences impacting the effectiveness and deliverables of the coalition.

  3. Set up a realistic timeline and time commitment. All members of coalitions are adding this task to their regular functions. They need to see that time is well spent and that their time commitment is manageable and realistic. Agree on a schedule of meetings, including necessary frequency and format (i.e., in person and virtual meetings). Understand that coalitions are not eternal, they fulfill a purpose and once the work is done, they can be dismantled. The membership decides on when that happens. Performing regular evaluations can help in this regard.

  4. Assign roles and spell out responsibilities. Members need to understand their roles and what is expected of them. It is of critical importance to establish clear and explicit ground rules to guide the work together. People must agree on acceptable behaviors and expectations. Specify matters like preferred forms of communication, decision making process, opportunities for feedback and reflection, and significant norms and values.

  5. Agree on the type of leadership. Shared leadership? One particular organization taking the lead? Do you need a paid person for certain functions? Again, this needs to be determined at the very beginning to avoid misunderstandings, frustration, and inaction.

  6. Develop a concrete work plan and assign people to monitor progress. After the group agrees on the plan of action and expected outcomes, assign a person or small group to develop a work plan that all members can follow that represents all the commitments made by the membership with specific tasks, persons responsible, expected outcomes, and dates. The same person or small group can also be in charge of monitoring progress.

  7. Carefully plan each meeting. Identify the purpose and who needs to participate, share an agenda in advance, establish a format that is participative and democratic, etc. Assign a facilitator, note taker and timekeeper to each meeting.

  8. Pay attention to the social aspect of the group. Do people feel included? Are diverse voices heard? Do members share similar air time? And most importantly, do members want to be part of the group?

  9. Celebrate victories. Take time to recognize when objectives are accomplished and the group produces successful results. Don’t forget to have fun.
Coalitions help nonprofits to gain results that they would not reach on their own, amplify their impact, share resources, provide diversity, and increase their political, social and technical power to move their agendas, but as anything else, they need to be managed well.

Claudia Lach principal of Lach Training & Consulting, is an organizational development consultant, trainer, facilitator, and leadership coach who works with individuals, teams, organizations, and coalitions to identify and generate change to achieve desired outcomes. Email her at Claudia@Lachtc.com or call 781-860-9782.
March 2019