The spirit of coalition: Lessons from the field

From The Spirit of Coalition, by Bill Berkowitz and Tom Wolff © 2000 American Public Health Association. Dr. Berkowitz has been involved in creating, directing, and writing about community programs for over 35 years. His previous books, Community Impact, Community Dreams, and Local Heroes deal with the skills, ideas, and personal qualities involved in successful community development. Dr. Wolff is an internationally recognized expert in coalition building and community development, who consults to and trains coalition practitioners in diverse settings across the world. He is the author most recently of The Power of Collaborative Solutions.

Challenges to coalition building, and tested strategies to meet them

1. Engaging citizens

  • Learn about citizens groups and associations
  • Develop contacts and relationships with these groups
  • Keep on the lookout for potential new recruits
  • Make personal contacts with prospective citizen members
  • Suggest giving the coalition a try (a small commitment)
  • Provide an incentive (e.g., status, a small stipend, a name on a letterhead)
  • Offer a range of ways people can help

2. Building citizen participation

  • Hold meetings at convenient times and locations
  • Provide time for informal interaction
  • Let people share their goals, expectations, and feelings
  • Make sure citizens have an equal voice
  • Hire agency staff from within the community
  • Allow time for trust to develop

3. Giving up control

  • Solicit and encourage ideas and issues from everyone
  • Listen to and validate those ideas and issues
  • Provide specific procedures and clear ground rules
  • Believe in your own members’ abilities
  • Accept that mistakes may occur
  • Consider that disagreements may be healthy
  • Don’t feel you have to do everything

4. Giving up territory

  • Be aware of past history and past territorial issues
  • Openly acknowledge that territorial concerns may exist
  • Understand current territorial definitions
  • Respect members’ self-interests and their need to hold on to some “territory” of their own
  • Find ways to cooperate that don’t involve territory
  • Be gentle, persistent, and patient around these issues
  • Keep coalition members focused on the greater good

5. Taking meaningful action

  • Discuss and clarify the overall goals of the coalition
  • Create a coalition plan based on those goals
  • In the plan, include clear objectives with actions and timelines
  • Agree upon small, feasible, easily realized actions
  • Give members advance notice of decisions that need to be made (e.g., on coalition agendas)
  • Follow up on decisions made and actions needing to be taken
  • If needed, discuss in a meeting why decision making and action seem to be difficult

6. Exerting your leadership

  • Make sure your leadership represents the full coalition
  • Clarify work expectations together with coalition members
  • Make sure that taking some responsibility is part of the membership expectation
  • Find those members most willing to accept responsibility
  • Delegate responsibility, with agreed-upon limits
  • Follow up on responsibility delegated
  • Offer leadership training for prospective new leaders

7. Balancing your life

  • Find a balance that works for you personally
  • Review that balance from time to time
  • Set aside personal time and personal days for yourself
  • Lead a healthy lifestyle, making time for rest and vacations
  • Find some interests beyond the coalition
  • Find supportive people you can talk to when needed

8. Keeping the flame alive

  • Plan future directions together with coalition members
  • Move at a pace consistent with members needs
  • Groom a new leadership
  • Take on winnable activities, and develop a track record of success
  • Reward members for accomplishments
  • Build in some celebration and fun times for the coalition

9. Keeping the faith

Faith is found in many places. We can’t tell you how or where to find it. It is a personal matter. But we do know that faith in the coalition and in its success is essential – and we hope that you can find a way of maintaining and sustaining it for yourself.

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