In this article you will learn how to build coalitions between movements. Together we stand stronger.
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When multiple groups and organisations come together to work on a campaign, they often opt to collaborate together in a coalition. Coalitions, however, have garnered a reputation for causing campaigners headaches due to their frequently slow, bureaucratic and top-down decision-making processes. In this guide, we look at an alternative way of building powerful collaborative campaigns. Networked coalitions, also called “networked campaigns”, harness the power of networks to develop more agile, dynamic and distributed campaigning coalitions that have proven themselves to be remarkably effective at building and channelling collective power.
The long history of activism has shown that it is crucial to communicate, cooperate and become more connected when it comes to movements. It is not only beneficial to the main goal, which is desired to be achieved but also to the movement itself, for its members.
First of all, the more cooperation we have, the better it is for achieving common goals. Building and creating strong connections is going to help us make a powerful “web” of activists all across the globe, therefore the process of achieving goals is going to be significantly faster and lessoverwhelming. This is a global aspect which is considered as the main reason when talking about “Why should we establish and develop stronger relations between movements?”. But there are also many other, not that “surface-level” kind of aspects.
There is a noticeable tendency that the left is more divided than right. It also really affects social, political and other movements in a bad way. But it is important to remember - even though many movements may have similar but not the same goals, it is still important to find compromises rather than arguing whether the goals the other movement is having are valuable. It is about setting priorities. Prioritizing achieving goals, enjoying the process rather than prioritizing aggressive arguing, conflicts, etc.
Also important to mention- creating tighter relations between movements is going to be relevant for exchanging experience, making the work process more productive. Basically cooperation and supporting each other is going to help developing movements faster and in a more effective way. It also kind of contributes to the idea of the strong web of activists.
Recap. How to achieve tighter relations between movements:
Traditional coalitions are heavily focused on building consensus among members, most often on very specific policy goals. Getting a set of diverse groups, who may align around a broader shared purpose, to align on specific asks and plans leads to slow and often exasperating decision-making processes. Focusing on narrowly defined issues also means that traditional coalitions have a tendency to fizzle out once the issue is out of the media or policy cycle.
Traditional coalitions are often characterised by top-down, centralised planning processes, in which a core group of coalition partners develop a joint strategy that members are then expected to adhere to. This means that coalitions can be slow to adapt to the dynamic contexts in which they operate and their plans can quickly become obsolete when these contexts change. Focusing on rigid operational plans also limits the abilities of coalition members to innovate on the ground.
Re-Amp brings together over 130 nonprofits and foundations working on climate change and energy policy across eight Midwestern states in the U.S. with the goal of reducing global-warming pollution. Halt the Harm has built a network of 1,300 group leaders and 14,000 members across the U.S. to halt the harms of fracking in their communities. The Power Shift network is a national community of organizations who work with young leaders to campaign for climate justice.
In Australia, the Lock the Gate Alliance brings together people from across the country to protect the land, water and communities from risky coal mining, coal seam gas and fracking. The Gasfield Free Northern Rivers movement brings people together to protect the biodiversity, water resources, agricultural lands and sustainable industries of the Northern Rivers from the impacts of coal seam gas and other forms of unconventional gas mining.
Several campaigns focused on privacy, censorship and surveillance in the tech world have been operating in networked coalitions including Team Internet, which brings together nonprofits, companies and individuals to lead the Battle for the Net campaign for net neutrality, and SaveTheLink which campaigns against link censorship. Similarly, the Canadian-led Stop Stingray Surveillance campaign brings together NGOs and companies from multiple countries to put a stop to invasive Stingray cellphone surveillance.
Change the Terms, a U.S. based coalition that spans human rights, civil rights, consumer protection, and technology organizations, is fighting to reduce hateful activities online.
At the city level, three inspiring networked coalitions are The Sydney Alliance, which brings together over 40 religious, union and community organisations to use community organising to make Sydney a better place to live. Its global network - the Industrial Areas Foundation - does similar work in over 80 cities around the world. Reclaim the City is a loose network of leaders and partner organisations dedicated to desegregating inner city Cape Town through radical strategies like occupations, in order to campaign for affordable housing. Finally, the Moscow City Alliance, and associated city based networks in Moscow, have campaigned in defence of green space and against demolitions, relying on the support of formal NGOs and informal local groups scattered across the city.
Many coalitions come together to achieve a specific policy goal and develop a shared plan to achieve it. On the other hand, members of a networked coalition unite around a broader cause or purpose. For example, the Halt the Harm network brings together groups across the United States under the banner of “halting the harms of fracking” in their communities. The Environmental Law Reform Coalition is another example. This coalition built a lot of power by coming together behind a "Let's Get it Right" frame. The frame is clear, succinct and broad enough to include a bunch of environmental laws. On the other hand, networked coalitions can come together around a shared commitment to social change. We see this in Sydney Alliance’s commitment to community organising, or Lock the Gate’s commitment to literally “locking the gate” - a form of civil disobedience that prevents mining companies from accessing the land.
Focusing on broader missions like this make networked coalitions more suited to working on longer-term, systemic change, while also making it easier for larger diversity of members to get behind the cause (sometimes leading to unlikely alliances).
Networked coalitions start from the premise that within every coalition there is a network of people (staff, members of groups, activists, supporters, etc.), and this network can either be functional or dysfunctional. How functional this network is in practice is not necessarily dependent on the strength or degree of organisational alignment - coalitions can achieve high degrees of alignment at the organisational level but fail to foster connections and synergies among their members at the individual level. Networked coalitions therefore focus on building and strengthening the relationships between the people that belong to them. This is why, for instance, the Industrial Areas Foundation network focuses on the practice of relational meetings: when coalitions are not building trusted 1-1 connections, then those networks are dying.
Networked coalitions can operate at a variety of scales - but importantly they include the local neighbourhood scale. There is a recognition that power comes from the ownership, meaningful activity and participation of people - and that the most accessible space for this is locally. That said, networked coalitions can operate across multiple scales from the local to the global. The most powerful are multi-scaled, capable of simultaneous activity in multiple sites. This is why the Sydney Alliance has both a local structure of districts in neighborhoods alongside a citywide structure. Similarly the Ontario Health Coalition has dozens of local health chapters alongside a provincial structure.
Members of networked coalitions (at both the individual and organisational / group level) have higher degrees of autonomy to implement their own campaign tactics - there does not have to be consensus among all of the coalition’s members for one to pursue a particular strategy to advance the coalition’s cause. Distributed leadership and decision-making is thus a key feature of networked coalitions, leading to local actions that are initiated and implemented by members and new grassroots leaders (Check out our guide on distributed organizing.)
However, another crucial feature is that members’ self-initiated actions are supported and amplified by the network, allowing them to achieve greater impact than they otherwise could have accomplished. The stronger the network becomes, the more iterations of self-initiated actions appear, and the more powerful these individual actions become as they are supported and amplified by the network. Localised actions are also complemented by larger moments of convergence, during which all network members coordinate their actions over a set period of time (for example, through distributed events, big days of action or through coordinated tactical campaigning on a single target or to achieve a more tightly focused objective) in order to focus community power and scale impact. In these ways, the coalition provides tangible value and concrete services to its members.
The Gasfield Free Northern Rivers (GFNR) provides a good illustration of this kind of distributed structure in which members also receive support from across the network. The alliance functions as a system of distributed leadership, comprised of around 20 location-based action groups. While these groups have autonomy, they collaborate by sending a representative to regular GFNR meetings, where a high degree of cooperation ensures that vulnerable districts are supported by the whole region (for more on this listen to ChangeMakers Series 1, Ep 2).
Similarly, Re-Amp focused on designing a network with decentralized structures, many hubs, shared leadership, and multiple platforms for connecting and communicating. But it also holds an annual conference that brings the entire network together to build relationships and develop collective strategy.
By giving their members greater degrees of autonomy and the freedom to self-organise, networked coalitions can liberate the creativity of their members, facilitating a larger diversity of campaigning tactics and actions on the ground. This makes them ideal spaces to foster experimentation and innovation, which, if successful, can then be quickly spread across the network for other members to learn from.
More traditional coalitions may be more beneficial when the objective is to achieve a very concrete policy or legislative change, which requires a high degree of coordination and harmonisation among partners to drive lobbying and awareness-raising activities.
Big-brand NGOs can face difficulties participating in networked coalitions as their desire to promote and maintain control of their brands can find itself at odds with a networked coalition’s decentralised and distributed structure, in which no single member has control over all of the tactics and messaging that are utilised across the network. Networked coalitions may therefore not work for organisations that do not like the idea of participating in spaces where fellow members can implement campaigning actions or disseminate messages that they may not fully agree with.
Similarly, networked coalitions’ focus on facilitating broad, inclusive alliances can lead to NGOs having to participate in shared spaces with organisations that they may not agree with on other issues.
An effective networked coalition functions according to a set of core operating principles (adapted from New/Mode’s “Embracing Networks” guide):
For instance, the Sydney Alliance formed following two major social attacks on civil society - one was the Workchoices / Your Rights at Work campaign that saw unions struggle for their lives - and become very open to new ways of collaborating. The second was the Cronulla Riots that saw many migrant communities, especially the Arab community, seek to reach out to others. Those social movements created an environment for leadership engagement that was critically important for building a coalition that was very different to ones that had come before.
Another set of coalition principles can be found in the Allied Media Projects network principles.
Resources and infrastructure
An effective networked coalition requires putting in place certain core elements which form the basis of its infrastructure. NetCentric Campaigns’ Field Guide for Network Managers list the following seven elements as being critical to a campaigning network’s success:
In terms of resources, running networked coalitions requires certain operational costs:
Finally, an effective networked coalition requires certain roles to be fulfilled by its leaders and members. In smaller or nascent coalitions, a single member can fulfil multiple functions roles but it is still important to keep all of these roles in mind in order to ensure they are all covered by at least one member:
A key role of weavers is also identifying undeveloped areas within the network and working, often with operators, to strengthen them.
Connecting to Change the World identifies a flexible “pathway to success” for building any kind of social impact network, known as the Connect-Align-Produce sequence. This is a useful framework for building networked coalitions because each phase builds on and strengthens the connections forged between the members in the previous stage. Having said this, it shouldn’t be seen as a completely linear sequence: for example, whilst some members are moving onto the produce phase, others may only be just beginning to connect to the network.
The first stage involves bringing together key organisations, groups and people with a stake or interest in the cause you want to work on. In this phase, the “weaver” role is key and requires identifying which organisations need to be brought together and what connections need to be forged in order to do so.
Here, when we say “cause” we are both referring to the social cause we are wanting to achieve, and the democratic cause or social capital that we need to build in the process. Thus, the Sydney Alliance campaigns for affordable housing by building local district teams across the city - it has a dual set of goals.
A good way to think about this task is to start from your end point: Imagine you have just achieved a huge campaign win and you want to throw a celebration - who would you be celebrating with? This cues up an image of the people that need to be collaborating in order to achieve the change you seek (even if you’re not 100% clear on exactly what that change will look like yet). This is essentially the vision of what you want your network to look like.
When you’re bringing together organizations, be sure to apply inclusion, diversity, equity and liberation principles. Inclusion means everyone is invited to sit at the table. Diversity means that everyone at the table is representative of different experiences, identities, socioeconomic locations etc. Equity means that everyone gets food at the table. Liberation means that the food they get is according to their needs (halal, kosher, etc.) and they enjoy (according to tastes, likes, etc) Blueprints for Change has a set of IDEL principles that define the IDEL terms as well as a set of values that help guide our work.
Practically speaking this means you will need to build in time, capacity and resources for connecting with groups you might not work with on a regular basis. Working together will mean more than extending an invitation-it will also include building deep trusting relationships through the work over time. When doing this work it can be helpful to take an approach, or stance, that embraces nuance and complexity.
Each coalition will have a unique context, but you might want to consider thinking about race, class, gender, sexuality and more when you build your coalition.
With this vision in mind, you can start comparing it to what the reality looks like today. Are some of these organisations already connected? How can we start to build ties between those that are not? How can we get them to work together? These are the key questions that you should start addressing during the “Connect” phase.
Once you start bringing these groups and organisations together, they can begin to exchange information on what they are already doing and build trust. By sharing such information, participants can start to get an idea of what value a networked coalition could bring to their activities in order to enhance their impact. This will become your network’s value proposition: the rationale behind why you think organisations or groups would be motivated to join the network and what you think will motivate them to continue participating (i.e. what they would get from the network). To see an example of a concrete value proposition see The Power Shift Network’s FAQ for new members, in which they outline the specific benefits and services that members can expect to receive from the network.
When a core group of organisations come together with both a stake in the cause and a desire to work together to achieve greater impact, the next stage is align around a shared vision or purpose.
However, before moving on to developing a shared vision it may be necessary to spend some time building and aligning around a shared understanding of the situation you want to change. This was a key lesson learned by Re-Amp, which began with a year-long systems mapping process that helped the network to agree upon its collective goal of reducing energy emissions by 80 percent. The shared map also gave members insight into four key levers necessary to shift the system they sought to change.
With a shared understanding of the situation that needs to change, members will be in a good place to set out their vision for the network. This often takes the form of a unity statement that specifies either a vision for the future or an overarching principle that members want to stand up for. For example, SaveTheLink.org’s unity statement is "Linking is the foundation of the Web. We oppose regulations that aim to censor links to content or otherwise penalize services that utilize hyperlinks."
Keeping your vision / unity statement broad but concise makes it easy for new groups to sign on. It is a good idea to test this out by circulating the statement to other groups and organisations that could potentially be interested in joining and getting their feedback before deciding on a final version.
Once existing participants have aligned around a shared purpose, it can then be used as a tool to reach out to and recruit new members to join the campaign. A basic form (such as this one from Power Shift or this one from SaveTheLink) and an outreach email (like this one) can be useful tools for this. Having groups or organisations sign up to a shared purpose or unity statement in this way establishes a clear boundary for the network.
In this stage, it is also important for members to not only align around a shared purpose but also around shared protocols or principles for working together. Developing shared protocols make it clear for members what is expected of them and what benefits they can expect to get in return, laying the ground for the next phase. For example, Power Shift complements its vision with a set of eight principles that its members sign up to and that provide the overarching framework for their collaboration. Lock the Gate Alliance has a similar set of principles, as well as a policy of peaceful behaviour, that guide all its work. Similarly, Sydney Alliance’s community organising approach offers a way of working together that guides alignment and is derived from its purpose to rebuild civil society.
Once members have aligned around what they want to achieve and how they envision working together in order to further this cause, the next step is to develop the necessary network infrastructure and resources (see above) in order to facilitate this. During this stage, it is particularly important to think about how to facilitate and amplify members’ self-initiated actions; how to facilitate free-flowing communications and learning amongst members; and what kinds of moments of convergence you should plan together in order to scale-up your impact.
Re-Amp’s strategy for this stage was to establish working groups for each of the key levers of change that they had previously identified in their systems map, as well as an additional working group for funders. At a later point they added caucuses in order to provide outreach to specific constituents, such as youth, faith-based communities, rural areas and national environmental organizations. At the centre of their network sits a steering committee, which is responsible for areas such as designing and maintaining the network’s infrastructure, identifying gaps in strategy, and distributing learning and information across the network. The steering committee is supported by full-time staff equivalents who work out of the offices of member organisations and provide direct support to members in areas such as media, communications and facilitating connections. See the Monitor Institute’s case study on Re-Amp for a more detailed explanation of its operating structure.
As a networked campaign grows, a key lesson learned by the The Gasfield Free Northern Rivers alliance is that it will be necessary to invest increasing amounts into network stewardship. In the case of the GFNR this was fulfilled by a Capacity Building Team which was responsible for providing direct support to members. Re-Amp offers similar services to its members through its Organizing Hub, which seeks to boost campaign excellence by providing members with best-practice guides, skill-building opportunities and hands-on campaign assistance, focused on the core aspects of running strong and effective climate campaigns.
Developing feedback mechanisms through internal and external reporting is another key aspect of this phase and one can easily get overlooked. The ability to share coalition lessons and accomplishments is closely linked to effective reporting practices. The digital marketing firm Capulet managed reporting for The Environmental Law Reform Coalition. Capulet ensured effective internal reporting surrounding campaigning work (e.g., number of letters sent and unique member initiatives) and campaign impact (e.g., what the media and legislators are saying), as well as external communications that amplified the impact of the campaign. Effective reporting practices will look different based on the coalition’s resources and needs. The important thing is to establish a realistic process that ensures consistent internal and external reporting. Below, we explain in further detail how to achieve this.
When building a networked coalition it is important to keep in mind how we might measure its success. Power in Coalition (2010) argues that any powerful coalition has two measures for success.
The first is about the social change it achieves. Does the coalition stop the mine or win the public education reform? Any social change goal has two elements to it. One is the win itself, and the second is whether (or to what degree) that win shifted the political climate. In Australia, for instance, the political win on the Carbon Tax in 2014 was good, but brief (it was abolished in 2016). In contrast, a win on stopping the Adani mine may turn around coal mining. Both may be wins, but the political climate question adds greater understanding of their success.
The second is about the social power it builds. Coalitions might win policy reforms, but they also must build the democratic engine room that fuels and sustains that social change. This is what this measure is about. Two elements are particularly important. The first is: how has the coalition improved the quality of the relationships between the member organisations? Is this network of relationships stronger having been in coalition (or conversely are they all sick of each other)? The quality of this network speaks to the capacity of the coalition to act in the future. Secondly, how has the coalition developed leadership? This could be in staff, but ideally is also in volunteer leaders distributed across the network.
Table of Coalition success
|Wins||Shifting the political climate||Stronger relationships between network partners/organisations||More leaders with more skills|
Adapted from Power in Coalition (2010), Tattersall.
Avoiding common pitfalls
As a networked coalition grows, it is important to anticipate common pitfalls that can cause a network to become dysfunctional. Below we list four particularly important pitfalls:
How to achieve scale with networked coalitions
Coalitions always play a difficult dance when it comes to scale - that is - how the coalition traverses large geographies and generates people power across them. Traditional coalitions are often “centralised” with little activity at the base or local level. Yet “localised” coalitions often don’t have the political power to move a political agenda at a state or national level.
One way to think about this is to understand that all coalitions negotiate a tension between ‘autonomy’ and ‘control’ - and that each has value. Coalitions need an element of control - a (loose) central plan - it is the reason for working together but it is also the way in which coalitions are able to achieve influence over a wide scale. But too much control turns everyday people with autonomy into a group that just receives, and is expected to follow, orders from the top. The extreme of control is ‘totalitarianism’ - not very desirable.
Conversely autonomy is wonderful, to a point. It’s where leaders can come together and make meaningful decisions about social change strategy. But pure autonomy is anarchy - it provides no basis for coordinated action.
Coalitions operate across this continuum - verging between being more coordinated and more autonomous depending on the strategic challenges they face at any given moment. The Sydney Alliance went through a phase of “going deep”: focusing on building leadership following its 2000 person founding assembly (they wanted to engage all those people in local groups). But then, in the lead up to the State Election, they shifted and focused on coordination to win specific objectives.
There is no “correct” form of coordination - it is a tension that teams need to negotiate based on their purpose.
Pressures from funders
When a networked coalition starts out, its activities and infrastructure can often be self-funded by its members. However, as the network grows in membership, scale and complexity it will most likely be necessary to secure its own sources of funding. This can be achieved by securing external funding through grants exclusively for the network.
However, funders often exert pressures on their grantees for increased centralisation, control and bureaucratisation, under the pretext of ensuring that their funding is managed in an efficient and accountable manner. This can be problematic for networked coalitions, as their strength and effectiveness lies in their loose, decentralised structure in which no single person or organisation has control over the entire network’s operations. It can also create power imbalances that often go unaddressed directly with the funders, which can lead to fractures, unhelpful communication backchannels that only part of the coalition is part of and unnecessary tensions between groups who are perceived to have more or less funding and therefore more or less power in a coalition.
Re-Amp’s strategy for addressing this tension was to involve both funders and NGOs as equals from the outset of the establishment of the network. They both worked together to agree on collective priorities and then they aligned their campaigning strategies and funding accordingly. This created an opportunity for funders and NGOs to engage as equals in setting shared strategies, even if their roles differed.
Additionally, there is a growing recognition in the funders’ community of the potential of networked approaches to campaigns and of their need for different funding mechanisms that are more suited to their distinct characteristics. There are several guides that have been published for funders on how they can more effectively support networks, including Engage: How Funders Can Leverage Networks for Social Impact and Catalysing Networks for Social Change (Connecting to Change the World also has a chapter on funders’ roles in networks) so we encourage help to get these widely disseminated!
Data management and privacy
Rich and open flows of data and information are essential for a networked coalition to operate well. Due to their large number of members and campaigning actions being implemented on the ground, networked coalitions generate a lot of information that needs to be managed effectively and responsibly. Doing so requires establishing clear protocols that set out what information will be gathered from members, how it will be gathered and with whom it will be shared. Specific tools can then be developed in order to manage data collection and dissemination according to these protocols.
Another important step is to have intentional conversations about security, risk, vulnerability and threat modeling with coalition partners. Have these conversations within the political context you’re operating in and bring in experts when needed. Keep in mind that this is another place where power and privilege play out in our work. People of color, women, queer and trans folks are much more likely to face vitriolic online attacks. Campaigns combating white supremacy will likely attract trolls, harassers and worse. Loose data, privacy and security practices in a coalition can lead to real harm for coalition partners and their members.
Principles to begin thinking about and guiding our digital security in coalitions include communication, storage, access and controls.
Please review the Blueprints for Change Digital Security Basics for Campaigners guide for more in-depth information.
You can make this article better! Do you have experience building coalitions, or do you have some resources on the topic? Feel free to add them here.
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This article is an adaptation of the one published by Blueprints for Change.
Input and resources for this guide were provided by:
Marty Kearns (NetCentric Campaigns / Halt the Harm Network), Steve Anderson (NewMode / Open Media), Darren Barefoot (Capulet / Mobilisation Lab), Esther Foreman (Social Change Agency), Annie Kia (Lock the Gate Alliance), Ari Sahagun Mary Alice Crim, Umme Hoque and Amanda Tattersall.
This guide was prepared and reviewed by: