Creating a Coalition

… a core concept in Leadership Skills and Atlas 109

Coalition2Concept description

This concept (effective practice) deals with techniques to help create a coalition – a group of individuals or organizations with a common interest who agree to work together toward a common goal.

Writing in the Encyclopedia of Management (reference below) Boyd Childress and Wendy Mason say:

“Coalitions are a potent force in organizations. Organizational behavior literature is largely independent of the social psychology literature on coalitions, yet a closer tie between the two fields is building. Likewise, business and organization literature has not utilized the vast literature of political science that examines the unique formation of coalitions for mutual goals. The merging of these three independent disciplines into a body of coalition literature can only enhance our understanding of the formation of groups for common purposes.”

Their review of the business and behavioural science literature suggests the following are common characteristics found in most coalitions:

  • Members act as a group.
  • They are formed for a specific purpose.
  • They contain a group of interacting individuals.
  • They are independent from the organization’s formal structure.
  • They have no formal structure.
  • They are oriented to a specific issue to advance the group’s purpose.
  • Perception of membership is mutual among members.
  • They have an external focus.

According to Childress and Mason:

“These characteristics may be common with other types of groups within organizations, but coalitions are separate and quite often powerful. As a part of an organizational power structure, coalitions are frequently seen as a manager’s legitimate search for power, and as such, are used to increase personal power or to achieve organizational goals. When building a coalition, potential members will identify those individuals or groups who have a common interest or goal and who are most likely to join. Generally, coalitions take time to form as participants identify the common goal, the best manner to approach that goal, and the individuals or groups most likely to share the preferred strategy of goal-seeking. Borrowing from social psychology literature, “Coalitions form one person (or group) at a time.””

Many of these phenomena also apply to building coalitions within a community. Phil Rabinowitz’s article in Community Tool Box (reference below) provides a long list of reasons for forming a coalition to address a community issue:

  • To address an urgent situation.
  • To empower elements of the community – or the community as a whole – to take control of its future.
  • To actually obtain or provide services. It may take a coalition – either initially or over the long term – to design, obtain funding for, and/or run a needed intervention in the community.
  • To bring about more effective and efficient delivery of programs and eliminate any unnecessary duplication of effort. Gathering all the players involved in a particular issue can result in a more cohesive and comprehensive intervention. Rather than duplicating their efforts, organizations can split up or coordinate responsibilities in ways that afford more participants access to programs and allow for a greater variety of services.
  • To pool resources. A number of organizations and individuals together may have the resources to accomplish a task that none of them could have done singly. In general, people and organizations join coalitions to do just that – accomplish together what they cannot alone.
  • To increase communication among groups and break down stereotypes. Bringing together groups and individuals from many sectors of the community can create alliances where there was little contact before. Working together toward common goals can help people break down barriers and preconceptions, and learn to trust one another.
  • To revitalize the sagging energies of members of groups who are trying to do too much alone. A coalition can help to bolster efforts around an issue. For people who’ve worked too long in a vacuum, the addition of other hands to the task can be a tremendous source of new energy and hope.
  • To plan and launch community-wide initiatives on a variety of issues. In addition to addressing immediately pressing issues or promoting or providing services, coalitions can serve to unify efforts around long-term campaigns in such areas as smoking cessation, community economic development, or environmental preservation.
  • To develop and use political clout to gain services or other benefits for the community. A unified community coalition can advocate for the area more effectively than a number of disparate groups and individuals working alone. In addition, a wide-ranging coalition can bring to bear political pressure from all sectors of the community, and wield a large amount of political power.
  • To create long-term, permanent social change. Real change usually takes place over a period of time through people gaining trust, sharing ideas, and getting beyond their preconceptions to the real issues underlying community needs. A coalition, with its structure of cooperation among diverse groups and individuals and its problem-solving focus, can ease and sometimes accelerate the process of change in a community.

Rabinowitz provides the following general guidelines for getting a community coalition off the ground:

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. Make sure that lines of communication within the coalition and among the coalition, the media, and the community are wide open. Open communication will assure that no one feels left out of the loop, and that everyone has the information necessary to make coalition efforts successful. Good communication with the media and the community will increase your chances for publicity and support when you need them.
  • Be as inclusive and participatory as you can. Work at making the coalition a group in which anyone in the community will feel welcome, and continue to invite people to join after the first meeting. Try to involve everyone in the coalition in generating vision and mission statements, planning, and major decisions. The more people feel ownership of the coalition itself, the harder they’ll be willing to work to achieve its goals, and the less likely they’ll be to allow turf issues or minor conflicts to get in the way of the coalition’s progress.
  • Network like crazy. Try to involve, or at least to keep informed, as many other groups in the community as possible. Let them know what you’re doing, invite them to coalition meetings (to make presentations, if appropriate, or just to see what’s going on), invite them to join if they’re interested, educate them about the issue. If groups in the community are informed about your work, they’re more likely to be supportive, and to tell others about what you’re doing as well. They may also have better connections to policy makers than you have, and may be able to help you approach them.
  • Try, at least at the beginning, to set concrete, reachable goals. Success is great glue – achieving reachable goals early can help a coalition develop the strength to later spend the years it may take to pursue and achieve long-term goals.
  • Be creative about meetings. Community activists and health and human service workers often feel that they spend their whole lives in meetings. If each coalition meeting can be different, and have some elements of fun to it, you’ll be much more likely to retain both membership and interest in the coalition. Some possibilities include rotating the responsibility for meetings among the groups comprising the coalition; having only a small number of meetings a year, each with a particular theme, and doing most of the work of the coalition in committees or task forces; or regularly bringing in exciting presentations on the issue or in areas that relate to it.
  • Be realistic, and keep your promises. If you’re not sure you can do it, don’t say you will. If you say you will, be sure you do.
  • Acknowledge diversity among your members, and among their ideas and beliefs. Your coalition will probably mirror the cultural, economic, racial, ethnic, and religious diversity of your community, and will certainly represent a diversity of opinion. Not everyone will agree with everything the coalition does or wants to do, and sometimes the minority opinion will be right. Make sure to take everyone’s opinion and restraints into account, and to use diversity as a spur to discussion, rather than a source of division.
  • Have a mechanism for getting things done when there is a disagreement, whether it’s a majority vote or something else. A long-term disagreement over strategy or tactics can hang up a coalition permanently, and make it totally ineffective.
  • Praise and reward outstanding contributions and celebrate your successes. In addition to success itself, the celebration of success is a great way to cement the bonds among members of a coalition. Whether through individual or group awards, or through parties or other events, celebration of achievement will help your coalition thrive, and will give you a much-needed opportunity to remember that there’s a reason you’re doing all this.

Boyd Childress, revised by Wendy Mason, Coalition Building, Encyclopedia of Management, at, accessed 2 March 2016.

Phil Rabinowitz, Coalition Building I – Starting a Coalition, Community Toolbox, at, accessed 2 March 2016.

Atlas topic and subject

Building Resources (core topic) in Leadership Skills.

Page created by: Ian Clark, last modified on 10 September 2016.

Image: Florida Health, at, accessed 2 March 2016.