Community coalitions can be powerful forces for change. It is important to have a strategic road map if you are involved in starting a coalition. From research and experience we have identified ten steps for cultivating community coalitions. There is more to these steps than can be effectively communicated in this single article, but this should provide a basic overview and starting point.
1. Convene a Planning Group
Many coalitions start with a core group of people who share an interest in the issue. If it is a grass roots coalition it might be a small group of citizens with a vision for change. If it is an organizational coalition it might be a small group of people from the agencies and institutions most involved in the issue. Some of the best coalitions evolve to include both organizational and grass roots elements. The key thing is to get started.
2. Develop an Initial Vision
The initial vision for the coalition should include the issues to be addressed, the populations affected by the issues, and some preliminary strategies for addressing the issues. Be as specific as possible about the issues to be addressed and the affected populations. Does your vision include a broad range of issues or just one or two? Does your vision include a broad range of the population or just a narrow sector? You will need a preliminary set of strategies in mind to proceed with coalition building, but these can be refined later with the help of the full coalition.
3. Identify and Recruit Coalition Members
Keeping your initial vision in mind, proceed to identify additional people who can help address the issue. Think through the five sectors identified earlier (the people affected, service providers, opinion leaders, public policy officials, and funders. Among these, which people have something to offer to the coalition in terms of influence, knowledge, skills, services, or resources? In particular, who might be the strongest leaders and champions for the coalition?
Contact the people on your list and share your vision. Ask them to articulate their own vision and level of interest in working on the coalition. Be open to adjusting the initial vision in response to good ideas. If one of your recruits is a potential strong leader or champion for the coalition, ask them if they will be willing to play that role.
4. Convene the First Meeting
Five objectives are suggested for the first one or two meetings.
- Educate the group about the issues and the populations affected. Be as specific as possible with data and research. Allow participants to articulate their own concerns about the issues.
- Brainstorm strategies for addressing the issues. Examples from other communities can be helpful for kicking things off.
- Identify additional community members who should be part of the coalition.
- Map out a process for how the coalition might proceed. A typical process might include creation of a strategic plan, engagement of the full community, development of resources, implementation of the plan, and evaluation of results. Also include a set of exit conditions under which people may leave the coalition
- Identify content experts (people who know the issues) and process experts (people who know how to facilitate a coalition process) who can help facilitate the coalition.
5. Develop a Charter and Choose Startup Leadership
A coalition charter is a written description of how the coalition will proceed as decided in Step 4. Each member person or organization should be asked to sign the coalition charter. The charter can be used to recruit additional members and sustain the focus of the coalition over time. The charter can be modified as needed. Also choose a startup set of Co-Chairs and Executive Committee. This will be the core group that leads the startup process.
6. Develop a Strategic Plan
The next one to three coalition meetings can be devoted to development of a strategic plan for the coalition. The strategic plan should specify the issues to be addressed, the populations affected, the mission of the coalition, the goals of the coalition, the action steps to be taken, and how progress will be evaluated. The final plan should specify responsibility and accountability for each main action step of the strategic plan. The final plan should also specify any task groups or subcommittees needed to execute the plan. In addition, the plan should address the issue of exit; that is, under what conditions will the coalition close itself down. Staff support is vital for this process. The co-chairs and staff must work in concert to help facilitate the group toward shared agreement on a plan. Again, it is important to have both content expertise (knowledge of the issues) and process expertise (group facilitation) available to the coalition. Sometimes coalition staff have these areas of expertise, and sometimes consultants are needed.
7. Begin Executing the Strategic Plan
Execution of the strategic plan should be directly overseen by the executive committee with accountability to the full coalition. Executive committee meetings should be scheduled to check progress and authorize adjustments to plans. Implementation results should be shared with the full coalition on a quarterly basis. Task groups and subcommittees should be used as needed to execute the plan. If funding is involved, special care should be taken to assure funders that resources are being used as planned.
8. Recruit Additional Members as Needed
Based on the plan and charter developed in Step 4, you may need to expand your membership to make sure you have the depth and breadth of people you need.
9. Manage for Sustainability
Sustainability is not an accident. It is consciously achieved not only by securing long-term funding, but also as a result of hundreds of small decisions and tasks completed on a daily basis.
10. Stay Open and Flexible
Good coalitions stay open to new members and ideas. They also stay flexible in response to changing community conditions.