Coalitions are a group of like-minded people aligning themselves long-term to meet common goals. Nonprofits form coalitions to provide services, to educate the public, or to advocate for public policy. But before jumping into a relationship with another organization, it's important to think through all the implications to ensure you are maximizing the benefits to your stakeholders.
- Coalitions increase numbers and there is strength in numbers. For coalitions formed around policy advocacy, increasing the number of people involved in actions is key. More people means more letters, phone calls, meetings, and petitions. More people means more chances for earned media at pubic events. More people means greater results.
- Coalitions maximize limited resources by sharing responsibilities. Since most nonprofits have limited resources, sharing is good. Dividing up responsibilities according to each organizations' strengths maximizes these limited resources by sharing costs for personnel, office space, materials, etc.
- Coalitions mean more people who bring more ideas. How can a strategy be tweaked to get the best results? Are there downsides to the plan? Is there a better approach? With limited resources, many nonprofits are understaffed and coalitions are an effective way to share ideas, refine strategies, and achieve better results.
Even the most lackadaisical reader will have noticed the word “potential.” There is one simple reason for this - I am a big fan of coalitions, and all the following issues can be avoided with proper planning and communication.
- Like any relationship, coalitions need to be nurtured. The flip-side to "more ideas" means more potential for conflict. To manage this, every coalition should have a written partnership agreement that outlines roles and responsibilities of all the partners, how decisions will be made, and how new organizations will be added.
- Your organization may lose control over branding. Logos, talking points, social media strategy, etc. will all need to be agreed upon. This is why many coalitions develop their own logo and slogan so that partners can co-brand materials with both the organization's and the coalition's brand. Again, this is something to think about before a coalition is formed so it can be addressed in any partnership agreements.
- A coalition is only as strong as its weakest link and if one of the partners does not fulfill its obligations, everyone is affected. Regular communication between members to update each other on progress is key to mitigating this risk. In addition, you can consider different memberships levels – for example, a new member might need to prove it can deliver before it becomes a decision-making member. Like all the other potential pitfalls, planning and keeping open lines of communication are key to mitigating these risks.
After an organization weighs all the benefits and potential disadvantages of a coalition, it may decide that a coalition is not the best strategy and, instead, a better option would be an alliance (which is a looser association than a coalition) or a network (which is more short-term than a coalition). I am as big a fan of these types of associations as well, because any partnership will increase the number of people and ideas involved and may decrease costs for individual organizations. Therefore joining any well-managed partnership will help maximize a nonprofit's benefits for its stakeholders – which is what mission-based organizations are all about.