3. GRASSROOTS ORGANIZING - Coalition Building

“We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.” -  Benjamin Franklin at the signing of the Declaration of Independence

By utilizing coalitions, you rely on the old saying “there is strength in numbers.” Coalition building is about getting other groups to support or even join your campaign.

WHY BUILD COALITIONS?

  • Portray strength. The strength of a coalition is the list of organizations representing diverse interests and greater memberships— the sum of which is greater than the individual parts.
  • Consolidate resources. Groups may be able to provide technical expertise, financial resources, name recognition or people power.
  • Become more influential. Regular participation in coalitions establishes your group as a leader, which leads to increased credibility, name recognition and respect within the community.

HOW TO CHOOSE A COALITION MODEL

  1. Decide if the coalition will be worth putting it together. Will the decision makers be influenced by the formation of a coalition? Will the coalition’s resources make a dent in the issue?
  2. Identify the amount of interest in the issue. How much do groups care about the issue? Does the issue have support a mile wide and an inch deep, or are a few organizations heavily invested in the success of the effort? In other words, which of the models is feasible? 
  3. Decide the level of urgency in the campaign. This will often influence the level of resources and the timeline needed to develop the coalition. 
  4. Identify what resources would be available. What resources can various groups put into the effort (or are willing to)? In looking at the range of groups to work with, consider your resources vs. other groups’. If you are the only group with resources to get the work done, you probably wouldn’t use the partner model. 
  5. Consider how well the groups would work together. Is there a history of close cooperation or differences in strategy and personalities? 
  6. Decide how long the coalition should exist. Does the political goal (passing a law vs. pursuing a long-term platform) suggest long-term structures or just working on an issue-by-Issue basis? 
  7. Look at who are the key players on the issue. Who has ownership over the issue? Who deserves credit? Is this something that you created or are you adding your clout to a campaign that’s already underway? 

HOW TO BUILD A COALITION

1. Determine which model to use and set goals. Which model will best suit your plans? Once this is decided, consider how the coalition can be most helpful. Ask yourself:

      • What image do you want?
      • What resources are needed?
        • financial
        • people power (volunteers)
        • access to decision-makers
        • access to the media
        • issue expertise
      • Who can you build relationships with through this campaign?

2. Make a list of organizations to approach. Some organizations will come quickly to mind, but others will require serious thought. Come up with as broad-based a list as possible. Be creative! Work backwards from who needs to be influenced. Also think about which groups you want to work with. Analyze all the advantages and disadvantages of potential coalition partners.

In general, the better you know who’s out there, the easier this list will come together. If you are new to an area or the issue, it might be helpful to get some tips from other groups or other issue experts.

3. Prioritize your list. Your strategy might be to get easy groups first to get the ball rolling, or to spend time only on the major players.

4. Create a coalition packet. If the coalition is to be broad-based with many groups approached, the materials should be mass produced, with a generic cover letter If the coalition is to be smaller and more focused on key leadership in the community, the materials should be personalized for each target.

5. Contact your target groups. Depending on the coalition model you are using, you may want to call each contact prior to sending the materials out. For these first sets of calls, you want to not only let them know you’d like to send them the packets, but also find out more about their process for decision making. This will also help you establish a contact within the organization.

6. Send out the packet. Make sure you note what happened in the conversation if you’ve had one. Once they receive the packet, call them within a few days to get their response and pin-down the decision-making process. Do you need to attend any meetings? Do you need to contact another division of the organization?

Be prepared to answer questions, and to provide convincing reasons why the group should endorse the issue or get involved with the campaign. In addition to thinking through what you want from each group, think about how they will benefit from their involvement in your coalition.

7. Get a commitment. This process can be time consuming since many groups have more than one step before endorsing or getting involved. Persistence and attention to their schedule pays off. Pay most attention to the priority groups—once a core of support has been established, it may become easier to get other groups on board.

When seeking endorsements, try to get specific letters of endorsement from each group in addition to getting permission to use their name on your endorser list. Ideally, the letter includes a brief description of the organization (if necessary), explicit support for your group’s campaign, and a call for others to support the campaign. Get clear permission to use the organization’s name on letterhead, in news releases, and to otherwise “speak with its voice.” As much as possible, anticipate other opportunities for the group to participate in the coalition and get these approved up front.

8. Maintain structure and communication. How formal will the coalition be? How will decisions be made? How will the members stay informed on developments in the campaign? Will the coalition meet weekly, monthly or never? Even in the case of a “paper tiger” coalition, do mailings every couple of months, and invite groups to relevant hearings and meetings.

9. Use the coalition. Hold a news conference to announce its formation. Circulate petitions within the ranks of the organizations. Send targeted decision-makers updated endorser lists and individual letters of support. It’s important to encourage the needed involvement as well as accountability within the coalition.