Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Coalition Work: Playing Nicely in the Sandbox

I’ve been thinking about coalition work in advocacy a lot lately…the art of bringing separate organizations together to work on a common goal and with a positive and constructive attitude. Metaphorically speaking, coordinating volunteers in one organization can be an exercise in herding cats. Why would you add more kitties? How do we keep the sandbox from becoming a litter box?

I love coalition work for many reasons. Building allies is important to making local connections and is often mutually advantageous to everyone. Every organization has a special culture and area of specialization, which can be a great advantage when the diversities compliment one another. With a spirit of cooperation and collaboration, you can see the miracle of 1+1 adding up to much more than 2 when you see the impact that you can make together in your community. I’m reminded of an African proverb:
“If you want to go fast, go alone. 
If you want to go far, go together.”

From the viewpoint of an organizational leader, I tend to seek out allies in other organizations in these three situations (although there are many other reasons, too):
  • I’m new in town and want to know what other people are already doing about my issue
  • I want the volunteers I lead to learn or experience something my current organization doesn’t provide
  • A project – like, getting the attention of a certain member of Congress or putting on an event – requires strength in numbers 
From a personal view, I feel I don’t have to limit myself to working with just one organization or one set of people. Because I know people receive messages in different ways depending on the messenger, I like being able to move between groups. That way, I can represent different messengers. I always have the same mission of advocating against poverty, but have a drawer full of t-shirts from various organizations, so I can pick and choose the one that best suits the specific message of the day.

Let’s take a look at four groups I work with in the anti-poverty world as an example of how similar organizations can have different vibes. Every one of these is a reputable advocacy organization that encourages similar kinds of actions. I know stellar expert advocates from each one, yet I value the unique culture and the mode of operations for each one.

ONE activists party downtown for World AIDS
Day. One free Belevedere (RED) vodka drink for
every letter we wrote to Congress. I wrote three!
  1. RESULTS lets me do a deep dive into advocacy for key, interrelated issues. There’s no better organization for teaching about best practices of how build meaningful, personal relationships with members of Congress. If you want to get a message delivered face-to-face to a decision maker, these are the people you want in the room.
  2. Shot@Life has a laser-focus on global vaccines as a tool for child survival as well as giving me great infographics and social media training. I get to fully indulge my “mommy” side and involve my kids as the culture is extremely welcoming to kids and parents.
  3. ONE Campaign volunteers are the cool kids on the block. ONE makes activism a sexy, mainstream thing to do and does a great job of using social media and texting tools for easy advocacy actions. If you want thousands of people to take a urgent, quick action or to pack a downtown Chicago bar full of hip young activists for a World AIDS day party, they are the masters.
  4. Bread for the World is a Christian organization with a deep focus on hunger. It is the very best entryway to talk to church congregations. Bread’s annual Offering of Letters is the gold standard of how to organize letter-writing events and they are extremely good at making the moral case to end poverty. They know how to get thousands of handwritten letters from churches or a powerful lobby meeting with clergy (and every member of Congress knows each pastor has a flock of hundreds). 
So, if I’m speaking to a Jewish congregation, I know it will make people feel more comfortable for me to use secular materials from RESULTS instead of Bread hand-outs with quotes from the New Testament all over them. You can also see how they can compliment each other very well. ONE campaign volunteer coordinators often do a stellar job at outreach and can lean on local RESULTS partners to provide lobby training if they don’t have nearby ONE staff to provide it.

It’s fun to have more people playing in your sandbox…especially when everyone is playing nicely. Here’s my handy-dandy list of “Do’s and Don’ts” for coalition work. The key to getting along is mostly common sense, but these tips are things I've had gently to remind myself – or others – about every time I start over with a new group. When it comes to collaboration and personal relationships, every one of us is a work in progress!

  • Do be make sure you have a mutual understanding of your common ground, so your work can stay focused and clear.
  • Do be clear with others about what makes your organization special and what you bring to the table that is beneficial to the partnership.
  • Do give as much as you take. Be generous with your time and others will be more willing to lend a hand for you.
  • Do build a reputation for being professional and easy to work with. 
  • Do be dependable and follow through with what you agree to do.
  • Do listen. Listening is so important.
  • Don’t overwhelm yourself trying to be all things to all organizations.
  • Don’t poach members. Actively recruiting and trying to get people to switch to your group is not cool.
  • Do respect the culture and strategies of the other groups. Just because they use different methods doesn’t mean they are wrong. In fact, it probably makes the coalition stronger as a whole!
To start off a conversation, let me ask you…what organizations do you find compatible in your work? How have you seen groups have success in working together? Or, if you don’t have stories like that yet…which organizations’ tshirts are in your drawer?