Building Local Coalitions


At the community level, some change requires only a few dedicated people to be achieved. More frequently, however, the scale or complexity of a particular issue requires locking arms with additional individuals and groups to effectively make change happen.
Building a coalition does not necessarily mean creating one huge meta organization. A coalition can be a loosely knit association of groups with a common interest in addressing an issue. The coalition can be a temporary mechanism for work on a specific problem, or it can serve as a model for people who would like to work collaboratively on related issues.

The most successful coalitions contain not only the “usual suspects,” but also seek out like minded allies who fall into the “strange bedfellows” category. Adding voices representing interests outside of your narrow sphere of influence is often critical. Avoid putting people in narrowly defined boxes (all churches, all businesses, all millennials, etc.). If for example, your opponent on a certain issue says that the policy they support is ‘good for business,’ having business people who can argue why that is not necessarily true will deliver your message to an audience that might otherwise simply ignore you, because they don’t believe that you understand their reality.

Coalitions can be effective when the issue in question has a need for urgent attention. This is how public policies often changed before the idea of bipartisan support became a mythical concept at the national political level. At the local level, however, the concept can still be quite practical.

One on the greatest benefits of coalitions is that they give many people who might otherwise be marginalized, a taste of the power that can come from collective civic engagement. Multiple people can be leaders within a coalition without being expected to lead the coalition. Coalitions are always a valuable opportunity for learning, growth, and leadership development.

With all of its potential benefits, it is also important to point out that forming a coalition is not always the best option. Beware when one organization says that it is “leading a coalition.” A coalition will only work when the collaborative leadership that comes from trusted relationships are it its core. A coalition is collaborative work, not one organization using the support of other groups only as a means to gain buy-in for its own agenda (see this post for more on collaboration).

Ultimately, potential coalition members will ask themselves, “what’s in it for us, and what is it going to cost?” They may come to the conclusion that the costs of collaboration outweigh the benefits to their group. But for those who see that the benefits outweigh the costs, the commitment can result in outcomes they could never have achieved on their own.

For more details on coalition building visit the following resources:

When Does Getting Credit Matter?

“In life you must often choose between getting a job done or getting credit for it.”
– Leo Szilard, physicist


Under what circumstances does it matter that you (individually, or your organized group) get credit during a process of creating change? When does that recognition help? When might it become a barrier to building support?

In an earlier post on evaluation, I mentioned the idea that it is often important to focus on contribution, rather than attribution. This a similar idea. Small, often very brave acts that complement, or build upon other small acts, all lead to the ultimate success of an effort to create change. When you are trying to give a variety of stakeholders a sense of ownership of an idea, or a goal, following just one “leader” can be disastrous (especially if that leader is self-proclaimed).

Generally speaking, building the level of trust that is necessary to accomplish increasingly greater goals, requires frequent recognition of everyone’s contributions. This one of the secret’s to effective leadership – the strategic leveraging of many peoples’ strengths in a manner that creates collaborative leadership.

I have mentioned this before, but it bears repeating – it is relatively easy to organize people in opposition to something. It is much more difficult, however, to organize them to create the unfavorable thing’s replacement. Separate, independent stakeholders acting to get rid of an unjust, or unfair policy or program, should have a specific, fairly detailed replacement for the problematic policy or program in mind as they deliver their case for support of change.

Consider cases throughout history where people have taken to the streets to protest oppressive regimes, only to find that the overthrown despot has simply been replaced by another tyrant. Those demanding change have greater leverage if their outrage is not simply considered generalized opposition. If they can say that their collective indignation is united in its support for specific changes, then acknowledgement for their specific role as change agents is important, because they were not simply anti-status quo; they were advocating a very explicit change.

Getting credit is less important when people are organizing, and creating coalitions. It becomes considerably more important when the prospect of change becomes inevitable, and people are expecting the vision created from their shared values. When you can say, “here is the change we’ve been demanding,” it is far more powerful than saying, “the bad thing is gone, maybe the next thing will be better.”